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Mr. Chaytor: In the interests of openness and transparency, in the remaining one and a half minutes, will the Minister make a specific response on the Royal Society's recommendation for a detailed investigation, with public consultation, of all the options available to deal with the plutonium stockpile?

Mr. Battle: I appreciate that, in a debate like this, it is difficult to reply to all the points in the short time left. Such a debate is a time for Back Benchers, not for Ministers to give a full statement. However, let me say that spent fuel and plutonium must be managed, whether or not there is reprocessing. I emphasise that reprocessing does not cause additional radioactivity. The waste that is separated from the used fuel in processing has slightly less radioactivity and less toxicity than the fuel from which it comes. However, the existence of plutonium stocks, in whatever form, is of concern with regard to radiotoxicity and proliferation.

Stocks of plutonium, whether separate or not, civil or military, need to be safely, securely stored and used subject to arrangements designed to ensure that the material would be available only for a proper purpose. I would say--

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael J. Martin): Order.

13 May 1998 : Column 335

Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland)

12.30 pm

Mr. William Ross (East Londonderry): The House has just been discussing an insidious and dangerous material, plutonium. I now bring to the attention of the House a practice that may not be quite as insidious as its perpetrators would wish, but which is as dangerous to the electoral process--and therefore to democracy in this country--as plutonium is to human life and to life in general.

I have seen my fair share of elections in Northern Ireland, not only as a candidate for councils and for this place, but as an Ulster Unionist party worker. I have been well aware of the dangers of electoral fraud taking place. It is not a new phenomenon. The old catch-phrase, "Vote early, vote often," is a testimony to what took place in past years in some elections.

From the time of my earliest forays into politics, I was warned to keep a sharp look-out on election day. I also learned that fraud did not start on polling day; that was the day on which the efforts put in train many months previously bore fruit. However--[Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael J. Martin): Order. The hon. Gentleman must be heard. I am surprised that the Minister for Science, Energy and Industry is conducting a conversation in the Chamber.

Mr. Ross: However, in those days, electoral fraud was not the danger to the validity of the electoral system and to the democratic process that it has become in recent years. Before the present violence began, a far larger percentage of our population in Northern Ireland lived in mixed communities. The party activists--there were many--therefore had a far greater knowledge of the total population than is now possible. In other words, the ghettoisation of Northern Ireland as a consequence of terrorist violence has increased the difficulties of political organisations in the Province.

That means that, whereas in the past the problem was largely confined to very few areas--for example, west Belfast, which was always a cockpit of politics--it is now far more widespread. Moreover, because electoral fraud is almost all carried out now by the Sinn Fein-IRA elements, it has become a carefully planned, sophisticated operation, far removed from the amateurish standards that were the norm when it was organised by individuals, not by an organised body of people.

Labour and Conservative Governments have been aware of the problem for many years, but have been distinctly loth to take action to stop it. I therefore welcome the Secretary of State's review team, set up in October 1997, which was a fulfilment of assurances givenby the hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngavie(Mr. Worthington), now Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, on 12 March 1997, to which reference may be found at column 397 of Hansard.

I also welcome the action taken by the Northern Ireland forum and the excellent report that its members produced, for which I happened to give evidence, some of which is reproduced on page 105 of the second report of the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs for the 1997-98 Session. I very much welcome the Select Committee's investigation and report, which is before the House and is relevant to the debate.

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A detailed and useful picture emerges as to how fraud is carried out. It is clear that it is massive and on-going--and that it must be stopped. It is interesting to read the last two paragraphs of the Sinn Fein memorandum on page 75 of the Select Committee report, for it is obviously the only party in Northern Ireland that wants the safeguards relaxed--I believe that we may draw certain conclusions from that.

On page 10 of the Select Committee report, the chief electoral officer for Northern Ireland--a man of vast experience in that field--informed the Committee:

Therefore, the problem is not new. There was organised electoral malpractice, personation and vote stealing on a massive scale at that time.

Of course, we should remember the reasons for the 1981 by-elections. There was the death of Frank Maguire, an independent nationalist Member of the House, followed by the election of Mr. Sands, the first hunger striker to die. It was a time of considerable political emotion in Northern Ireland, especially in that area. However, we can see from that statement how much it was capitalised on and used by the terrorist organisation of which Mr. Sands was a member.

On pages 11 and 12 of the Select Committee report, my hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley(Mr. Donaldson) asked many interesting questions and made several interesting points. For instance, he pointed out:

that is, Mr. Bradley's office--

    "as the applicants did not live within the catchment area of the Omagh health centre and on investigation it was found that these people were not registered with that health centre, in other words the doctor who signed these applications attesting that he was treating these people was not treating them."

On page 12, my hon. Friend says:

    "You may be aware of a BBC . . . Spotlight"


    "which highlighted the problems with multiple registration particularly in the constituency of West Belfast. The reporters in that programme came up with a number of clear examples of multiple registration. One example was where six people claimed to be tenants in a one bedroom flat and in fact none of them was actually resident at that flat. Again, another situation where five residents were registered at another one bedroom flat but could not be traced. Another where six people were sharing a one bedroom flat, three of whom could not be found. And another case of two out of five people registered at another flat who were registered at other addresses within the same constituency as well as two further addresses in a different constituency. Certainly, from my recollection, they are all clear cases of abuse of the registration system."

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That gives a clear idea of the position from the viewpoint of the Ulster Unionist party, but the most damning words in the report were uttered, not by an Ulster Unionist representative, but by Mr. Alex Attwood, an active and well-known member of the Social Democratic and Labour party on Belfast city council. He tells us on page 50:

    "The evidence the SDLP produced was on the Draft Register"

of electors

    "and many of their concerns centred on Divis Tower in the Falls Road. Normally around 160 people live here, but according to the draft electoral roll there are 22 extra residents."

He mentions various flats, some of which may well be those mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley. He continues:

    "According to the draft electoral roll this two-bedroom flat is home to five men, including Terence Clarke"--

better known in Belfast as "Cleeky Clarke"--

    "Robert MacMahon and Sean O'Neill. These names, although slightly misspelt, matched those of close associates of Gerry Adams."

There is more in the next column, to the effect that those people appear not only at that place but throughout Belfast, and especially in north Belfast. Every one of them is a well-known thug, to be charitable. We simply cannot allow that to continue, and there must be action to stop it. For those who do not want to wade through the 108 pages of evidence, I suggest a reading of the summary of conclusions and recommendations, which are quite damning.

It is plain that the provision of an accurate register of electors is the first essential in stamping out electoral fraud. It is an established fact that the key to the prevention of widespread fraud is a means of accurately identifying each elector at the compilation of the register and in the polling station, or when the person is applying for an absent vote. That is not a new conclusion, because the present requirement that each elector should identify himself before receiving a ballot paper is an effort to prevent fraud.

The system has not worked because the documents that are required do not all have photographs and many of them are easily acquired by the fraudsters. That was acknowledged last year by the present Under-Secretary of State, at column 398 of the Official Report of 12 March 1997. I am not sure that there is a foolproof or easy answer, but the essentials of a better method of identification are easily derived from the mass of evidence that is with the Government. They are an identity card with a photograph of the person who is named on it, which should also contain the date of birth and a number that is unique to the card owner. It should either be the person's national insurance number, although there are difficulties with a large surplus of national insurance numbers, or the medical card number.

It would be a good idea for the card to be a medical card and, of course, that is close to the concept of a national identity card. Perhaps the Government will clarify their position on that issue. Such a card was proposed in the previous Parliament by the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard), who is now the shadow Foreign Secretary. The medical

13 May 1998 : Column 338

card would also be useful if the holder had an accident. Such a triple check would make it difficult to register more than once, and a computer system would pick that up as it picks up registered debts. The photograph would make visual identification in the polling station of the elector relatively easy, beards aside.

I do not accept all the arguments by the so-called civil libertarians against an identity card. Most other countries in Europe have them, and it is nonsense to think that a totalitarian Government would not rapidly introduce such a system anyway. The issue creates no danger to civil liberties.

The Minister will say that it would be almost impossible to get accurate photographs of everybody in Northern Ireland. I again draw to his attention the good news that I gave him a week or two ago in another debate. Photographs with the correct name attached are already to hand for a large proportion of the electorate. They exist in the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Northern Ireland agency in County hall, Coleraine.

The Minister will recall that, on 3 April, more than1 million people in Northern Ireland had driving licences. Few of the photographs on them are false, because they would be of no use to the licence holders. About two or three years ago, the agency studied the implementation of a national identity card. The agency holds the date of birth of all licence holders. Some women may have avoided giving that, but that is not a real problem. Each licence has a unique number that could be used if needed. The system uses a card of the same size as a credit card--it is a blank credit card--and production could be carried out in Coleraine at fairly high speed, although it would still take some weeks.

On 3 April there were 1,082,936 licence holders on the computer system, and every licence has a digital photograph attached. After allowing for the number of people who have departed, the photographs of a huge proportion of the people of Northern Ireland over the age of 17 are in a computer in Northern Ireland and could be switched out at any time. That represents 88.7 per cent. of the population of the Province over the age of 17.

The numbers associated with the card should be on the electoral registers that are used by officials in the polling stations, and should be available to the chief electoral officer for cross-referencing to his computer list. However, they should not be on the registers that are available to the public. If that system was implemented, forgery would be extremely difficult, because the fraudsters would not be able to produce cards with the correct numbers. To steal votes, they would need electors' cards and would have to reprint them with different photographs. That would be a much more sophisticated operation than the one in which they currently engage.

Next week, we have a referendum on which the future of Northern Ireland will depend, and the accurate identification of electors is no more possible in that vital election than it was in the two elections last year. Steps should have been taken long ago to deal with electoral fraud. I hope that the Government will say what they intend to do and when, so that we may have honest electoral results in all parts of Northern Ireland, not only in areas where Sinn Fein is weak.

The debate is about electoral fraud, but there are other concerns about elections. People should not be prevented from voting, but if we restricted postal and proxy voting,

13 May 1998 : Column 339

that right would be curtailed. We must face that delicate and difficult issue, but it must be dealt with properly. There must be a more sensible approach to the use of the driving licence for purposes of identification. At present the whole licence, document card and all, has to be produced. That is obviously nonsense, because the plastic card with the photograph, which most people carry in their wallets, should be sufficient.

People can go into a polling station and say to the presiding officer, "Hello John, how are you? Here is my driving licence." They are told, "It is insufficient, William. You are not allowed to vote. Away you go." Many people walk out in fury and do not come back. That is crazy. I have raised the matter for years and I have been told, "Perhaps they go home and come back." They will not come back if they live five miles away. A proper identity card for this purpose is needed. It would also be useful for other purposes, and a medical card is the one that I favour.

Common sense must be applied to the identification of Northern Ireland people. We know the problem and we know where it is and who is behind it. When will the Government act? All hon. Members and the vast majority of Northern Ireland people want honest election results. All the information is available. When will the Government get on with it?

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