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12.46 pm

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. Paul Murphy): I thank the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Ross) for raising an exceptionally important issue. I encountered the matter almost in the first week of becoming a Minister, because, of course, directly after an election, matters are fresh in politicians' minds. Since that time, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I have taken a special interest in electoral malpractice. I pay tribute to the members of the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs, who produced an interesting and full report. I also pay tribute to those who took part in the forum talks and who met me to present their report and findings. I give the undertaking that the findings of both bodies will be taken into account in the current review. I shall come to that shortly.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the Select Committee report. On page 105, he is reported as saying:

Because of the problems of malpractice and fraud that have been experienced in Northern Ireland, aspects of the electoral system there are better than in the rest of the country. There is a residency qualification and a declaration against terrorism. Documents are specified and, of course, voting is by proportional representation.

The Government take abuse of the system extremely seriously; we believe, above all, that the right to vote is central to democracy. If the integrity of that process is abused, democracy itself is abused. The importance that we attach to the issue is illustrated by the speed with which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State responded to allegations of malpractice after the elections last year, by establishing the review of electoral procedures. Since July, the review has been analysing every aspect of electoral procedure in Northern Ireland,

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with a view to enhancing the system generally, but with a particular interest in investigating the incidence of malpractice.

On 31 July last year, I asked voters in Northern Ireland to write in with their concerns or evidence that they might have of electoral abuse, and their suggestions for improvements. I can tell the hon. Gentleman that the response was not particularly good. Consequently, some months later, in October, we issued a second press release and I personally sent a letter to every political party that had not yet submitted papers for the review. Even then, I suspect, the response was a little disappointing. Nevertheless, we have worked very hard.

Mr. William Ross: One of the reasons why the Minister may not have got a response from my party and possibly from others was that we knew that the other inquiries were going on, and we assumed that both the forum and the Select Committee would deal with the matter. That has indeed been done very well.

Mr. Murphy: I take the hon. Gentleman's point, but his party was not the only one involved. There were smaller, newer parties that could have helped us in our review.

We had a great deal of input, and still do, from the chief electoral officer, Mr. Pat Bradley. The review team has studied and carefully considered all the points made by the forum committee, the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs and the parties that have written to us.

The hon. Gentleman referred to specific examples of electoral malpractice. I shall deal with three aspects, starting with electoral registration. Some have alleged that the Northern Ireland electoral register is inaccurate, and that those who wish to abuse the system exploit procedures in order to register themselves or others when they do not fit the eligibility criteria. Our research so far has indicated that such malpractice is possible, but it must be said that no specific, provable cases of deliberate attempts to abuse the system have emerged.

As has been pointed out, the method of registration in Northern Ireland is better than that in the rest of the United Kingdom. A system of door-to-door canvassers is used every September to compile the register. The canvassers offer help and advice to householders on how to fill out their forms, and help to explain the eligibility criteria. Furthermore, in the attempt to collect all registration forms in person, they call at each household three times, before leaving the form to be returned by post. The rate at which forms are completed with a canvasser present is regularly over 90 per cent. In the preparation of the last draft register, 408 canvassers were employed and more than 622,000 residential units were canvassed.

After the registration cycle, the draft register is published to allow for a system of claims and objections operated by the chief electoral officer to take place. As the hon. Gentleman will know, objections are allowed to any name included on the register or claims for names to be added. The point made by Mr. Attwood in his evidence could be covered by that procedure. Names can be added to the register throughout the year, by a monthly claims process. As the hon. Gentleman knows, he and his

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parliamentary colleagues are sent by the chief electoral officer the annual timetable of dates for the monthly hearings.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire): The report by the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee suggests that a rolling register that would allow people's names to be added and deleted according to area as they moved around would be fruitful in Northern Ireland. It would be particularly fruitful in dealing with the problem of multiple registrations, which are open to abuse, because a system of multiple registrations would not be necessary for people moving from one area to another. I realise that that is tied in with the general review of such matters throughout the United Kingdom.

Mr. Murphy: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. He knows that the recommendations of the Select Committee, of which he is a member, are important and will be taken into account. The review has identified various possible improvements, and we are investigating their long-term feasibility.

Personation at polling stations may spring first to people's minds when the issue of electoral malpractice is raised. It caused public concern in the 1970s and 1980s and led to the introduction of the Elections (Northern Ireland) Act 1985. The hon. Member for East Londonderry rightly referred to the requirement for a voter to produce one of a number of valid, specified documents at a polling station before being issued with a ballot paper. The list was drawn up with the intention that all registered voters would have access to at least one of those documents.

I am aware of the concern about the use of the medical card as a form of voter identification, which has been expressed by individuals and many parties in Northern Ireland. I take the hon. Gentleman's point about the use of another document, perhaps a registration document. Those are matters that the review is currently considering. Of course, it is important that documentation should be provable and have the confidence of everyone concerned.

We must be careful, however, not to withdraw documents without an adequate replacement being made available. It is not an option to disfranchise genuine electors in order to tighten up voting regulation. The hon. Gentleman referred to the miles that people must travel, especially in rural areas, in order to vote, and the fact that they rarely return after being turned away. Regulations exist that allow for the challenge and arrest of individuals suspected of personation, but as the hon. Gentleman knows, they are rarely used.

From general correspondence and feedback, it has become clear that the greatest source of concern about electoral malpractice is the absent voting system. The procedures that we have inherited do not appear to include the checks that are present for registration and voting at polling stations. There is scope for abuse of the regulations, and the absent voting procedures seem to be the ones most vulnerable to malpractice.

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The Government have already taken steps to make the system more secure for the referendum and the possible assembly elections. The electoral office will be allowed a slightly longer period for scrutinising the absent voter applications, which would permit the identification, and therefore the rejection, of fraudulent applications.

In addition--this was dealt with in the Select Committee report--the wording of the medical declaration is being changed to require the witness to declare that he has seen the applicant in connection with the medical condition. That should aid the identification and prosecution of medical practitioners who fraudulently attest forms. The hon. Gentleman referred specifically to the comments on that in the Select Committee report. We shall examine the operation and success of those measures to decide whether they should be implemented for future elections.

The review is looking into the absent voting system. It submitted an interim report on electoral malpractice in November last year. I must repeat that no hard evidence of electoral abuse has been presented, but there can be little doubt that there is a general perception in Northern Ireland that electoral malpractice is being perpetrated on a large scale, that electoral abuse exists and that something must be done. I strongly agree that abuse is unacceptable and that it is essential for people to have confidence in their electoral system.

The chief electoral officer has been very open in his judgment of the system. Although he agrees that no real proof of malpractice exists, he has publicly expressed his concern that certain irregularities strongly suggest that certain areas of the electoral process at the very least arouse a suspicion of foul play. I believe that, once the review has reported, we shall want to carry out full consultations with the parties before introducing changes. That means that it is unlikely that any fundamental changes will be made before the elections to the European Parliament in 1999, but some may well be introduced after that date.

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