Mr. John Taylor (Solihull):
We are grateful to the Minister for setting out the background and the main provisions of this short Bill, and I congratulate him on his debut at the Dispatch Box.
The Bill has the broad support of the Opposition, and we have no intention of dividing the House this evening. It is intriguing that the Government should have chosen to debate electoral fraud in a part of the United Kingdom on the day that the Conservative party is engaged in its first leadership election ballot. I am sure that that is entirely coincidental.
The hon. Gentleman should not read too much into that coincidence, as the parliamentary Labour party is also voting for its chairman today.
There is an even-handedness and implicit fairness about that that may speed us on our way.
I assure the House that my hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire (Sir M. Spicer) has, in his capacity as our chief electoral officer, put in place strict measures to prevent multiple registration or any form of personation. There have been no reports so far of people voting early and voting often.
Regrettably, that has not always been the case in Northern Ireland. Ever since the franchise was extended in the 19th and early 20th centuries, electoral fraud, the "vote early, vote often" tradition, and problems of personation have been endemic to political life.
It will not surprise the House that I believe that parties representing the republican tradition have been more adept than others at exploiting the system for their electoral advantage. That is certainly true over recent years, although I am told that, in the past, it was not unknown for Unionists to engage in that practice also. Just before the 1987 general election, the distinguished journalist David McKittrick wrote a brilliant article on electoral malpractice, in which he stated:
"Complicity in these activities went right to the top. One woman campaigner volunteer recalls a former Unionist Prime Minister shaking her by the hand and urging her to 'vote early and vote often'."
The same article describes personation as
"simply the stuff of normal politics".
It cites stories of people voting 10, 20 and 30 times, and quotes Lord Fitt, who recalled polling stations at which the turnout "bafflingly exceeded 100 per cent." A polling station without personation agents was known as an open box, and Lord Fitt is quoted in the article as saying that every attempt was made to "riddle the box" by pushing in as many personators as possible.
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According to McKittrick,
"houses and halls were set aside as 'dressing stations' where personators would sometimes go for a change of clothes."
It was only when Sinn Fein began contesting elections again in the 1980s that the old convention of "doing your own side" was cast aside, and vote stealing from the other side began to take place.
As a result of all that, elections in Northern Ireland, and in particular the identification of voters at polling stations, are already more tightly controlled than in the rest of the United Kingdom. Most recently, the previous Conservative Government passed the Elections (Northern Ireland) Act 1985, which made it compulsory for electors to present specified identity documents before they were given the ballot paper. Despite that, however, I agree with the Government that the Act has failed to stamp out personation and electoral fraud in Northern Ireland. In particular, stories abound about the ease with which some of the documents specified in the Act can be forged, especially those that do not carry a photograph, such as a medical card or a book for the payment of allowances, benefits or pensions.
The current extent of electoral fraud is, of course, difficult to quantify with precise accuracy. By and large, elections pass off without incident. I have no doubt that in the majority of cases the results reflect the wishes of the electorate. I also express my appreciation for the work carried out by the chief electoral officer, his staff and all those involved in the running of elections in Northern Ireland, who do their jobs, often in difficult circumstances.
That said, however, there is enough anecdotal evidence to make it clear that more needs to be done. As the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee concluded in its 1998 report,
"there is sufficient evidence of organised voting theft to indicate that the problem of electoral malpractice in Northern Ireland is serious".
Indeed, rather than declining, the evidence appears to suggest that the problem has been on the increase in recent years. The result of this year's election in Fermanagh and South Tyrone has already been mentioned. Sinn Fein won by only 59 votes and the result is being challenged in the election court in Belfast because of allegations that a polling station was allowed to stay open for some time after the 10 pm close. Fermanagh and South Tyrone is not, of course, without form in the history of electoral malpractice. Anyone conversant with the result in 1955 or the allegations surrounding the by-elections of 1981 will be able to testify to that. We await the court's judgment with interest.
Nor is the problem confined to Westminster electionsat local government and Assembly elections the existence of multi-member constituencies and the single transferable vote increases the potential for fraud. As the then chief electoral officer, Mr. Bradley, in his report for 199899, put it:
"The local elections are more susceptible to electoral abuse. A small number of voters can have a significant impact on the election of individual councillors and hence, in the case of marginal councils in determining the overall control of the council."
Electoral fraud has been the subject of a number of studies and debates in recent years at Westminster and in the Northern Ireland Forum and, recently, in the Northern Ireland Assembly. I, too, pay tribute to the work of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee under the
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chairmanship of my noble Friend, the former Member for the Cities of London and Westminster, Peter Brooke. Its report in 1998 highlighted a number of areas of concern and formed the backdrop to the Government's White Paper "Combating Electoral Fraud in Northern Ireland", which was the basis for the Bill.
That Select Committee drew attention to problems in the following areas: registration, absent voting, political presence at polling stations, and voter identification. Some of the examples that it mentions in its report are staggering.
On the accuracy of the register in Belfast, West the Select Committee noted evidence provided by the Social Democratic and Labour party of some 18,000 names that appeared more than once on the register for the area, compared with 6,000 on a London register for an area with a large Irish community. It is no wonder that the Select Committee concluded:
"the evidence indicates that there may be a serious level of multiple registration, at least in some parts of Northern Ireland".
The Government's review "Administering Elections in Northern Ireland" concluded:
"there is a level of false registration which is carried out with the express intention of abusing the system".
On the abuse of absent voting, we learn that before the 1997 general election the chief electoral officer received 10,000 applications only hours before the deadline. As the Select Committee noted:
"A large proportion of these were from one political party."
There are no prizes for guessing which one it might have been. An investigation by the chief electoral officer into applications for absent voting uncovered one case in which a doctor had attested that an applicant was unable to leave his home, but another application by the same person for a different election included the statement that the person was a long-distance lorry driver.
As the Select Committee noted, the chief electoral officer was
"satisfied beyond any shadow of a doubt that the problem was extensive".
The Select Committee concluded:
"Absent voting provides a serious threat to the integrity of the electoral system in Northern Ireland."
The Government's review stated that the chief electoral officer believed that up to half of all absent vote applications for the 1997 local government elections were fraudulent.
On the problems of voter identification at polling stations, the Select Committee also drew attention to the weakness of the current system, concluding that
"the present system of relying on party agents to challenge in cases of personation is unrealistic and provides inadequate protection".
Clearly there is a need for action, and we are justified in criticising the Government for their delay in putting legislation before the House. Why did it take three years between the publication of the Select Committee report and the White Paper setting out the Government's own proposals to combat electoral fraud? As the Select Committee, in its first special report of 2000-01, put it:
"When we reported in March 1998, less than a year after the General Election, we had a reasonable expectation that rather more progress might have been made before the next General Election in tackling the serious problem of electoral malpractice than appears likely to be the case".
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That is rather more diplomatic than the language that I would use to describe the Government's delay in coming up with these proposals. The argument that they lacked parliamentary time is simply unsustainable given that they only got round to publishing their White Paper in March, and given that they regularly make time in the House for much less serious measures than the one before us today.
As a result of the Government's delay, legislation was not in place for the recent general election; nor will it be in place should the Government go down the road of calling fresh Assembly elections if the current impasse continues. That is unacceptable.
Turning briefly to the Bill itself, I do not intend to follow the Minister in describing each of the proposed legislative changes in detail. As far as the changes go, they make practical common sense to the Opposition. We hope that adding the date of birth and a signature, allowing the presiding officer at a polling station to ask for the date of birth of an elector applying for a ballot paper and the introduction of an electoral identity card will have the desired effect in combating what is clearly a problem.
We particularly welcome the move towards phasing out the non-photographic forms of identification at polling stations and the new photographic electoral identity card. We urge the Government to proceed with that as quickly as possible, given that it is estimated that it could take up to 18 months to complete the process after legislation is passed.
Looking to the longer term, the White Paper "Combating Electoral Fraud in Northern Ireland" identifies the potential for new technology to combat electoral fraud to ensure that in Northern Ireland we have a comprehensive and secure electoral identity system. The White Paper suggests that the ultimate aim should be for every voter to be issued with an electoral smart card bearing a unique identifier. That would prevent anyone from registering twice without the knowledge of the chief electoral officer, and would make it almost impossible for anyone to vote twice.
That surely must be the way forward in Northern Ireland, so it was disappointing to read in the White Paper that, having set out the advantages of such a scheme, the Government consider them to be only "aspirations for the future". Surely the technology exists to begin working on a secure electoral identity scheme now. That is what the Government should be working towards, and with rather more urgency than they have shown with the measure before us today.