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

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Mr. Peter Kilfoyle (Liverpool, Walton): Is the hon. Lady aware of the failings involved in using a driving licence as ID? In my experience of constituents having had them stolen, despite the theft having been reported and their being used in criminal prosecutions against the person who used the licence illegally, it seems that the agencies involved could not intervene in the illegal use of a stolen licence. I have been involved in long correspondence on the matter. Does she foresee circumstances in which such an eventuality may occur in Northern Ireland and that identification may be abused for electoral purposes?

Lady Hermon: I appreciate that intervention and was delighted to see the hon. Gentleman take his seat, as he always makes a lively contribution to the debate—

Jane Kennedy: When he is here.

Lady Hermon: Indeed.

We are assured that the highest security will be built into the cards. In Northern Ireland, where for some people vote stealing has been a hobby for years, there is always the possibility that people, especially in the republican movement, will be anxious to steal votes, especially from the Social Democratic and Labour party. The republican party does not, as a rule, steal votes from the Unionist party. My concern has always been about stealing votes from the SDLP. I repeat what I said last week: we cannot afford to lose the moderate nationalist party in Northern Ireland. That is a serious concern.

It will be exceedingly difficult to forge the new electoral identity cards, as they will have a photograph of the voter as well as a signature, national insurance number and name and address. Given the technology available nowadays, I hope that built into the cards will be something akin to the security measures on ordinary—or not so ordinary, nowadays—bank credit cards which will make them exceedingly difficult to copy. That will be infinitely better, and it will be an improvement when voters cast their vote in Northern Ireland if we exclude all non-photographic identification, as medical books and benefit claim forms has been fraudulently used at the polling station.

We are happy about the Government's timetable for establishing the cards alongside other photographic identification, such as the passport, the driving licence and the new Translink over–65 SmartPass travel card, which is available only in Northern Ireland. According to the Government, they will all be available in time for the scheduled Assembly elections in May 2003.

We seek the elimination of fraudulent use of non-photographic material. Again, I would love to have the availability of electoral identity cards emphasised on the electoral registration form, as many voters in

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Northern Ireland do not know that they are available. Those are the points that I want the Minister to address, and I look forward to her comments.

5.10 pm

Jane Kennedy: Several probing questions have been raised. I deliberately did not go into detail because, for consistency, the Northern Ireland regulations in large part exactly follow those for the remainder of the UK. I did not deal with the issues that the hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) raised—the big question of fundraising and a clearer definition of electoral purposes—because they were largely explored in the debate last week. However, for purposes of clarity and the record, I shall address them now.

On fundraising, because the regulations apply in exactly the same way in Northern Ireland, political parties will be able to use the register for fundraising, which is deemed to be for electoral purposes. Again, I resist any clearer definition of ''electoral purpose'' than already exists. I can neither add to nor subtract from the views expressed last week by my hon. Friend, the Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department, and I do not intend to do so. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me for that.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the views of the Electoral Commission. If hon. Members are interested, they could go to the commission's website, where its views are published. The commission's attitude is very clear that

    ''electoral registers should be compiled exclusively for electoral and other limited statutory purposes and that they should not be made available for sale for commercial purposes''.

However, it accepts that the Government's policy to extend access to the full registers to credit reference agencies for the very specific purposes laid down in the regulations—that is, for checking applications that could result in the granting of credit and for meeting the requirements of the money laundering regulations—is in the public interest. The commission said that it

    ''welcomes the Government's intention to put in place a comprehensive regulatory framework for the purposes of ensuring consistency with the requirements of the European Data Protection Directive and the Data Protection Act 1998, and compliance with the European Convention on Human Rights and the provisions of the Human Rights Act 1998.''

The Electoral Commission largely accepts the Government's position, although it is not in entire agreement.

The hon. Gentleman asked whether a review of the application of section 9 in England and Wales was in the Government's mind. Clearly, such a review could take place, although the matter has been thoroughly discussed in the debates that we have had on electoral fraud in Northern Ireland. However, we will continue to review the matter. The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) pressed me on monitoring abuses of the registers that will be published and used under the new regulations. Clearly, it would be remiss of us not to keep new regulations under frequent review.

The hon. Member for North Down was right to raise the very serious issue of names and addresses and

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the security of police officers, and I appreciate her concern. The national insurance numbers of police officers or anyone else will not appear in the version of the full register that is supplied to political parties. The information requested on the registration form is intended for the use of the electoral officer alone, and he must ensure that it is kept securely. That deals with national insurance numbers, but does not deal with the underlying problem that serving police officers have identified to the hon. Lady and that she rightly described to us.

Concern about the inclusion of all names and addresses on the full register has been expressed over the years. The essence of the electoral register is that the names of all those who are entitled to vote should appear on it. There is no opt-out for police officers, or for members of the security forces, who are currently required to register in the same way as all other electors. Neither the Secretary of State nor the chief electoral officer have been contacted formally by the Police Service of Northern Ireland about the matter. Should it contact us, or should any police representative organisation want to raise concerns, the Under-Secretary of State and I should be more than happy to consider them.

It is appropriate for us to pause and consider the circumstances under which police officers and their families live and work in Northern Ireland. We often forget the pressures that they are under and the enormous lengths to which they must go to conceal their work from their neighbours, and even from their children. I understand those pressures, and am prepared to receive representations should those people feel that is necessary. They are already making such representations through the hon. Member for North Down.

I can tell the hon. Lady that other vulnerable groups have a similar problem, and manage it in different ways. The police have managed the difficulty in the past in different ways, and I am willing to consider how we can help.

Lembit Öpik: This is, perhaps, a slightly rhetorical point. We shall probably agree to the regulations, but I am not quite sure what the Minister means with regard to monitoring, because once they have been introduced, all the measures will go ahead. Can she give any further assurances?

Jane Kennedy: I cannot give further assurances, other than that we will monitor carefully the application of the regulations. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will keep us on our toes in that regard, and will report any abuses that come to his attention.

The Police (Northern Ireland) Act 2000 provided for the Police Service to be known as it is in the regulations. The point made by the hon. Member for North Down had not occurred to me. If I have been wrong in what I have said, I shall write to her, but I do not believe that I have been.

The hon. Lady also mentioned the driving licence, and I can confirm that only the photographic section of the licence will be needed. We have plans to issue guidance before polling day about the precise element

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of the photographic ID that will be acceptable. The Electoral Commission has already taken that on board. I shall consider whether the notes attached to the back of the form can be improved along the lines that she suggested. There will be a publicity campaign about changes to all photographic ID before and at the time of the annual canvass, and right up to polling day. Television, newspapers and other media will be employed in that campaign, and people, such as old age pensioner groups, will be actively sought out and offered voter ID cards.

The hon. Lady referred to the information in the small print at the bottom of the electoral registration form. It is not strictly in small print, but in exactly the same sized print as information elsewhere on the form. The danger of supplying such forms in Committee is that we start drafting them in Committee. However, her point about the importance of ID is valid. I am not sure whether we can improve on the registration form, but if the publicity campaign is successful, all those who wish to use the other ID card will be able so to do.

The hon. Lady's last question was about the sex of the voter. If a particular name raises a doubt, the chief electoral officer can always question the person applying for registration. I hope that that deals with her questions.

The regulations, together with the Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Act 2002, are an important step in

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combating fraud while safeguarding the rights of the elector during elections in Northern Ireland.

Mrs. Claire Curtis-Thomas (Crosby): As a matter of interest, will the Minister confirm that the form is intended to be used by individuals?

Jane Kennedy indicated assent.

Mrs. Curtis-Thomas: I thank the Minister for that clarification. I notice that there is some room on the second page. Has consideration has been given to increasing the font size? Some people may appreciate a slightly larger font to allow them to complete the form without having to seek further information.

Jane Kennedy: I thank my hon. Friend for her constructive idea. No form is ever perfect, and we will consider what has been said in Committee today about the structure of the form and the information that should be included in it. There is a danger of making forms too complicated, but the points that have been made are valid and we will consider them. I am grateful to hon. Members for considering the regulations thoughtfully and constructively, and I hope that the Committee will approve them.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

    That the Committee has considered the draft Representation of the People (Northern Ireland) (Amendment) Regulations 2002.

Committee rose at twenty-one minutes past Five o'clock.

The following Members attended the Committee:
Gale, Mr. Roger (Chairman)
Cash, Mr.
Curtis-Thomas, Mrs.
Dobbin, Jim
Hermon, Lady
Kennedy, Jane
Kilfoyle, Mr.
Lazarowicz, Mr.
McIsaac, Shona
Mahon, Mrs.
Murphy, Mr. Jim
O¨pik, Lembit
Spink, Bob
Stuart, Ms
Swire, Mr.
Wyatt, Derek

The following also attended, pursuant to Standing Order No. 118(2):
Twigg, Derek (Halton)

 
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Prepared 17 July 2002