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Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield): I am beginning to wonder whether I have failed to understand the franchise system, or whether the Northern Ireland system is completely distinct. Will the hon. Gentleman provide some clarification? Let us forget about his business premises. If he happened to have one home in Belfast and another in a different council area, would not he be entitled to vote in council elections in both places?
Mr. Robinson: No, I would not have such an entitlement, as this House changed the law to ensure that I could not vote in two places. One of the front runners on the issue happened to be the hon. Member for Hull, North (Mr. McNamara), who argued that people should have only one vote, no matter what the circumstances in Northern Ireland. To that extent, Northern Ireland differs from the rest of the United Kingdom.
Lembit Öpik: At the core of this debate is the question whether one should be able to register to vote in more than one place. I agree with the Minister that people should be entitled properly to register. Do not his words point to the inescapable fact that the only way forward is to introduce a mechanism such as a smart card to ensure that nobody cheats the system?
Mr. Robinson: The Minister's words showed that he had been taking his decisions on multiple registration on the assumption that people were entitled to vote in more than one constituency at local government level. The basis on which he built his approach has now been taken from beneath him, so he has no argument left regarding multiple registration.
Rev. Ian Paisley: The only benefit that a person gets by registering in two places is that he can nominate someone as a councillor or even a Member of Parliament. He cannot, however, vote in two places.
Multiple registration was only the first of three aspects of electoral abuse about which I wanted to speak. Indeed, it was the smallest of the three, as far as my notes were concerned. I shall now move on to personation, which is a key factor. Hon. Members have referred to the early custom of going to a house where alternative clothes were available and changing in order to vote again. Sometimes, vans would be driving around and people would go into them to change their clothes. I do not want to cause any embarrassment to my colleagues along the Bench, but I point out that the practice was carried out in a fulsome way by the Ulster Unionist party in earlier days. The then Republican Clubs party followed on in West Belfast, and there has been some reference to Lord Fitt's confessions on the matter.
Even in my earliest days in politics, when people who had been in the Ulster Unionist party suggested that we should make such an addition to our campaign tactics, I had to tell them that if they used the same energy in going to houses, pulling people out and getting them to the polling stations, they would probably end up with more votes. Even before the law on identification changed, the truth of that argument was realised and that method of stealing votes seemed to dissipate considerably.
The whole picture was changed by the entry into the political process of what was effectively a paramilitary army that had all the discipline and numbers that were required to organise major vote theft. There can be no doubt that Sinn Fein organised the stealing of votes from those whom it might have deemed to be its supporters. It also arranged, perhaps more enthusiastically, to steal the votes of people whom it knew to be opponents. We were given ample evidence that Sinn Fein did that by using the medical card in particular. For example, there was evidence that the Royal Ulster Constabulary had raided a propertyI think that it was in Londonderrywhere it found the burnt remains of medical cards that had been printed and were being used for vote stealing.
My colleagues in various parts of the Province told us how medical cards were distributed from car boots outside polling stations to willing people who came along to take the votes of others. It is difficult to quantify the scale of such abuse but it seems to have been a considerable problem, and it still is. The removal of the medical card and benefit books will assist in tackling the abuse only if there is a substitute to ensure that decent people who want to exercise their vote will not be disfranchised because they do not have one of the remaining identification documents. For example, driving licences and passports are not significantly used by senior citizens. Of course, some of them will have one or both of those documents, but our studies have overwhelmingly shown that about 70 per cent. of the people who use identification at the polling stations use either the medical card or benefit books. They do so because those are the most readily available documents.
I want to help the Minister and I hope that he will consider a suggestion. He probably knows that in Northern Ireland, as a result of good, sound Democratic Unionist party policy, free fares have come to fruition. Senior citizens of 65 and above will be able to travel for free in Northern Ireland on the production of a pass. That indicates that a new photographic pass will be produced over the coming months. It will bear a name and all the features that the Minister has identified as necessary for his identification card. One benefit of including the new bus pass as a document suitable for identification may be that there will be an incentive for a large section of the community to obtain the pass.
Many of my colleagues might think the fact that people will be able to vote for them incentive enough to obtain an identification card. They might find that there is an even greater incentive if a section of the community can have free travel throughout Northern Ireland and, if it is wished, into the Irish Republic, on the ground of having an identification card in the name of the Department for Regional Development.
If the Minister is not prepared to recognise such a pass as an acceptable document, he could at least piggy-back his scheme when the passes are being handed out. There is no reason why two passes could not be secured at the same time. I am sure that if his office were to make contact with the Department for Regional Development and Translink, it would be possible for the two documents to be handed out at the one photo session. That would perhaps ensure a greater uptake from the section of the community that I think will be the most difficult to get registered under the new scheme.
I hope that the Minister will consider that. Like the Select Committee, I recognise the validity of his argument that an identity card without a photograph would not be of much value in a polling station. Members of the security forces were outraged that people could enter a polling station with a medical card bearing no photograph and little verification, yet they could produce a police warrant or an Royal Irish Regiment document, which would not be acceptable. The Minister might want to consider in Committee whether a document is acceptable as long as it is a photo-identity card that is issued by government, in whatever form.
The remedy in the Bill for personation is date of birth. It is a help, but it will not be significant in assisting polling station personnel. It is difficult even to come close in determining the ages of some individuals. I am not sure how brave the staff in polling stations will be in questioning people, especially those of the fair gender, about their age, particularly if there has to be an assumption that they are older than they are claiming to be on the register, which contains their date of birth.
I am not sure to what extent the inclusion of date of birth will be a help. With the exception of the financial restrictions that might be applied, I cannot understand why signature was not brought forward as a possible way of confirming the identity of a person in a polling station. I think that the Minister was sold on that idea when he was a member of the Select Committee. The Committee recognised that equipment would be available digitally to compare the signature given at a polling station with that on the special electoral register available to the polling clerks at the station. A significant amount of equipment
Mr. Grieve: I am interested in the hon. Gentleman's point about signatures. My professional experience as a barrister is that comparing signatures digitally is far-fetched. People's signatures can vary widely depending on whether they write fast or slowly. For example, the signature that one produces as a specimen often bears little relationship to the scrawl that is appended, perfectly legitimately, to the bottom of documents.
Mr. Robinson: I do not want to question the experience that the hon. Gentleman may have. However, the evidence that the Select Committee received was that the equipment available could judge a comparator on many points. The argument was advanced to the Committee that it was possible and reliable to use such equipment. I am sure that the Minister will require such equipment to be used in the electoral office when a signature is being used as a comparator for signatures on postal vote applications. It is the Government's intention that there should be a signature on the registration document for each person who is applying to be entitled to a vote. In the context of absent voting, signatures can be examined to ensure that there is no forgery and that no invalid applications are being made.
It appears that those who are abusing the system concentrate on absent voting, for obvious reasons. It is the area where it is the most difficult for them to be caught. They do not present themselves in front of someone, so they cannot be nabbed. They can abuse the system at a distance in anonymity and hope to get away with it.
Sufficient examples have been given during the debate of the number of postal votes in Northern Ireland. The hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) dealt with the extent of absent voting in Fermanagh and South Tyrone and West Tyrone, for example, where almost 10 per cent. of those entitled to vote voted by postal vote or by proxy. That must be an indication of the great need for medical services there or a signal of electoral abuse. It cannot be justified by comparison with any other constituency in the United Kingdom.
In the Select Committee and the forum committee, we heard from the chief electoral officer at the time of examples of abuse of the system. At one election, an individual applied for a postal vote because he was having his legs amputated, but when the next election came round, he was going on a skiing holiday. I am sure that it is possible for someone who has had his legs amputated to go skiing, but it would be sufficient to alert me to the possibility of electoral abuse.
The electoral office receives about 10,000 applications only days before it must distribute postal vote documents. There is little opportunity for it to engage in the necessary scrutiny. The evidence that the Select Committee received showed that the only scrutiny undertaken was to ensure that the forms had been completed properly, with names, addresses and doctors' signatures. When the forms were scrutinised more fully after the election, it was discovered that the same doctors' names appeared over and over again. In some instances they appeared on hundreds of applications, and related to people who were not their patients. The forms indicated that these people had an incapacity and could not attend the polling station.
There must be a penalty for doctors who are prepared to engage in such electoral abuse. They have no knowledge of the patient, yet they are willing to sign that the person is incapable of going to the polling station to register his vote. Given the volume of applications in certain areas of the Province, it is abundantly clear that there is fraudulent use of the absent voter system.
Of course, electoral fraud is committed with more sophistication now. Sinn Fein-IRA purchase copies of the marked register, from which they can determine who has not voted in a series of elections. They know that if they take those votes, it will not come to the attention of the electoral office. They provide themselves with absent voter application forms for those people. They intercept the forms from the Post Officeagain, there was evidence of that happening. Alternatively, they go to the house and take the application form before the person who is receiving it ever has the opportunity to vote; in some cases, they do so before that person has had the opportunity even to open the envelope. That is how it is done: it is a sophisticated operation by those who are intent on abusing the electoral system.
The signature will assist only if there is sufficient time to carry out the investigations. If the Minister wants to tackle that issue, the electoral office must be provided with the necessary resources. A significant number of people must be put in during the run-up to an election to ensure that the investigations are carried out and that there is proper scrutiny of all the postal and proxy vote applications that come to the office. There are clear resource implications. The Government cannot simply put the legislation through and hope that everything will work out in the electoral office. I trust that the Government are prepared to fund the necessary increase in staff and support at the office.
I shall describe some of the provisions that the Government should have included in the legislation and that I hope that we can introduce in Committee. To avoid abuse, it is essential that something is done about intimidation. The Minister talked about an exclusion zone, cordon sanitaire, or whatever term the House wishes to use. I agree with him in that I do not believe that that will solve the problem, but unless new powers are given to staff inside the polling station, and to the RUC officers outside it, intimidation will still happen.
It is not always a question of the intimidation of voters. Indeed, it is difficult to intimidate voters because they can have the last laugh: ultimately, they go into the box and very few people will know what they have done there. It is the intimidation of other political parties' staff and workers in the polling station that gives an advantage to one political group. There must be some cognisance of the fact that additional powers need to be given to the police and to the presiding officer and his staff, so that they can tackle that problem.
Attention must be paid to access for the disabled. It is all right saying that we will deal with people who defraud votes, but if one stops people who are entitled to vote getting to the polling station, it has the same effect. In my constituency, people have not been able to gain access to a polling station because of steps or because they could not get their wheelchairs through the gates. I am sure that the same tale could be told in other constituencies. There are many different reasons why disabled people cannot gain access. A number of polling stations are not disability-friendly. That problem must be looked at.
There is one further factor that I hope to be able to raise in Committee, if the amendments are selected: bogus opinion polls, which are a method of bending the minds of voters. I say "bogus" because that is precisely what I mean. It was known that the opinion polls that were printed by the newspapers were bogus; the companies that carried them out must have known. I have seen the detail of how one opinion poll was carried out and I know that it was bogus. I am talking about the main opinion poll that was carried out for the Belfast Telegraph by Ulster Marketing Surveys in the run-up to the two elections on 7 June. UMS deliberately chose areas where my party was not standing as the sampling point.