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Lembit Öpik: The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point, and as recently as in the 2001 general election, the parties to which he refers may have derived genuine advantage from playing the system. However, I am sure that mainland voters would not take kindly to the discovery that a major party on the mainland had broken the democratic franchise. Further normalisation in Northern Ireland could mean that those who cheat the system there would suffer the same fate.
Mr. Grieve: No. I mean that the Bill may lead to more personation being detected, and as a result public opinion may come to oppose the practice. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will agree with the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon), who said that there was something strange about the fact that different constituencies in Northern Ireland register absent voters in different ways. For example, one wonders where the many absent voters who are registered in Fermanagh and South Tyrone and in West Tyrone come from.
I turn now to some specific points arising from the debate. I do not want to take up too much of the House's time, so I hope that I shall be forgiven if I do not comment on all the speeches that have been made.
The hon. Member for Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) proposed the use of national insurance numbers to prevent fraud. That possibility is not provided for in the Bill, but I shall risk repeating myself by pointing out that the usefulness of national insurance numbers for that purpose would be very limited. The Minister mentioned the matter in passing in his opening speech, and I should be interested to hear more.
I do not want my remarks to become too anecdotal, but from my experience of prosecuting people for benefit fraud it became apparent to me that national insurance numbers were two a penny. They are readily obtainable by a variety of means, and anyone who lays hands on a benefit book containing a national insurance number can start exploiting that number. I prosecuted one case in which paramilitary groups were funding themselves through the United Kingdom taxpayer. They had obtained large quantities of new benefit books, and those books carried national insurance numbers. I therefore have serious doubts about the possibility of using national insurance numbers to curtail electoral fraud.
Moreover, as the Minister noted, people could get muddled by a system that depended on national insurance numbers. Most people do not know their number and would be unable to state it to an electoral officer if they did not have it written down.
The signature is a very old fashioned means of identification, and I wonder how accurate it can be. That is not to say that the Bill is wrong in requiring signatures. I have no difficulty with that, but the hon. Member for Belfast, South suggested that signatures could be used more widely, and I am not sure that that would be as useful as he believes.
The Minister may say that the digital methods that have been floated before the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee are now so accurate that a signature's particular characteristics can be detected. None the less, even if similarities can be determined between the very clear example that I might put on a bank card and the scrawl that appears when I sign a document at a funny angle, I am not sure that signatures would be very effective in the role that has been proposed.
That brings us to the nub of the debate, and to the key matters that must be grappled with. One of the key aspects of the Bill is whether we are moving towards smart cards for voting. Clearly, the provision in the Bill for such cards should be an exceptionally powerful deterrent against fraud.
One subject that we have to debate, and frequently do, is reconciling the liberty of the individual, and the tradition of turning our backs on any form of identification card, with the growing pressure for the use of such cards in a wide variety of situations. I do not want to become involved in too wide a discussion this evening, but voting is undoubtedly a right. As the hon. Member for North Down said, it is a right enshrined under the Human Rights Act 1998. At the same time, it is also a privilege. I would not expect to be allowed to vote if there were some doubt as to my identity.
In those circumstances, we are probably moving inexorably, not only in Northern Ireland but in mainland United Kingdom, towards some sort of smart card identificationI hope that it will not be an identity card, with all the connotations that that hasfor situations in which one's identity has to be properly established, and voting is one of those.
I hope that the Minister will not take it amiss when I say that I worry a little about the two-tier nature of the system that seems to be creeping in under this legislation. I appreciate the conservatism of the Government on this matter and have no dispute about the principles that underlie it. In an effort to provide a number of ways in which people can identify themselves when they go to the polling station, the Minister is leaving open the possibility that some people will identify themselves with those cards and others will use other methods of identification. It has been pointed out that those at the more deprived end of society may be forced to have the smart cards, as they do not use the other forms of identification. That worries me because such people may feel that a burden and a responsibility are being placed on them, and they will have the legitimate complaint that others are using forms of identification that may be much less accurate. I hope that the Minister will keep that aspect of the matter under review.
Furthermore, if we are moving progressively towards more accurate forms of identification, and as there is widespread agreement in the House on the direction in which we should be going, it is surprisingthe hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) picked this upthat we are not providing in the Bill for the removal by statutory instrument of certain forms of identification, when they have passed their sell-by date and the new systems have come into operation.
As the Minister will know, I do not usually favour legislation by statutory instrument. Indeed, I have on occasionprobably, indeed, on occasions too numerous to mentionspoken out against it. None the less, this is one area in which we ought to be capable of using the provisions of statutory instruments creatively, without resorting to subsequent complex debates in the Chamber, which take up time. It is precisely because they take time that such matters do not come before the House. To be kind to the Government, I am prepared to accept that one reason why we have waited so long for this Bill is that, notwithstanding the report of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, there has not been Government time for it.
The one area that will merit careful consideration in Committee is whether we can streamline and move towards a simplified smart card system. I appreciate that that will not be done overnight, but if Northern Ireland voting is carried out entirely by smart card at the end of the process, our civil liberties will not have been infringed. They certainly will not have been half as infringed as they are by the present system, under which people may legitimately doubt whether the outcome of a particular election in a particular constituency really reflects the principle of one person, one vote.
I do not wish to take any more time. As the Minister knows, the Opposition welcome the measure and will not seek to divide the House. We appreciate what the Government are doing, and they have our support. I hope that the Minister will take on board the matters that we have raised, and also that in his reply he will be able to touch on the anxieties raised by hon. Members on both sides of the House so as to ensure, in due course, that fraud is prevented and Northern Ireland has a much better system.
Mr. Browne: With the leave of the House, I will reply to this Second Reading debate. I am grateful for the opportunity to discuss electoral fraud in Northern Ireland and for the many well informed contributions. Some of them were better informed than I was, but I will return to that.
In the words of the hon. Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth), I am also grateful to those hon. Members who shared their street wisdom with me. I assure them that it will inform debates in Committee. In any event, I do not think that I am known as someone who is far removed from street wisdom.
The problems of electoral abuse in Northern Ireland have repeatedly exercised Governments. The matter has been raised by the chief electoral officer for Northern Ireland and his staff, by party officials across the community and by the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs and other committees. Together with those
I take this opportunity to express the Government's appreciation of the work done by the chief electoral officer and his staff and their dedication in ensuring that elections in Northern Ireland are carried out properly in what we all acknowledge are sometimes difficult circumstances.
The measures must strike a balance between limiting the opportunity for abuse and putting obstacles in the path of genuine voters. I will endeavour to answer as many questions as I can in the time given and I undertake to write to any hon. Members whose questions I do not answer.
I welcome the support for the measure from both sides of the House, even though it is qualified in some instances. I am grateful to the official Opposition, especially the hon. Members for Solihull (Mr. Taylor) and for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve), for their support. The hon. Member for Solihull and other hon. Members raised an issue that I endeavoured to address in my opening speech: the timing of the legislation and the reason that it has taken so long for it to appear. I do not propose to repeat myself, but I point out in defence of the Government that the time taken to consider and agree workable proposals was not entirely wasted and that other things were done.
I remind the House that the following new measures are already in place. We now have rolling registration. The chief electoral officer has a statutory right to inspect the records kept by a number of public authorities, some of which I identified. Absent vote applications are being dealt with locally, which has improved their processing. The electoral office has been provided with more funding for additional staff and with new IT systems to facilitate changes. I shall return to that point.
It has always been our intention that the provisions of the Bill would be in place for the Assembly elections scheduled for May 2003. The hon. Members for North Down (Lady Hermon), for Solihull and for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) asked about multiple registration. For some Members, the discussion of that point may have been the most interesting part of the debate. It appears to have generated a request from the hon. Member for Beaconsfield that I enlighten the House as to precisely what the franchise is.
If this is the worst mistake that I make as a Minister, it will not be the worst ever made by one, but I do not think that the hon. Member for Belfast, East is correct. Unfortunately, the legal advice available to me at the moment is not precise enough for me to be able to check that point and I do not have access to the documentation, so I shall write to him to set out the position. I shall clearly set out what we propose. On that basis, we can hold an informed debate on multiple registration in the Standing Committee.