Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs Second Special Report


Letter from the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to the Chairman of the Committee

I am now able to enclose, as promised, a full response to the Northern Ireland Affairs Select Committee report on Electoral Malpractice which was published in March 1998.

I am very grateful to the Committee for the thoroughness of its report and the amount of detail made available to us in both the commentary and recommendations. It has made an important contribution to our own thinking on this issue.

As you will know, the consultation process following the publication of our own review "Administering Elections in Northern Ireland" was rather more extended than originally planned but because of the importance of questions raised, we felt it essential to make sure that all had a chance to participate and make known their views to us before we formed any plan of action.

Our own conclusions on the best way forward are very much in line with the recommendations of the Select Committee and reflect the views of the Northern Ireland parties.

I would like to make public our plan of action for those measures intended to counter abuse and reinforce the integrity of the Electoral Register - by means of a press statement. Please let me know if this gives you any problems.

Details of improvements in other important aspects of electoral procedure will be announced in due course. This second set of recommendations will include measures to improve access to polling stations for the disabled and voter education. In the meantime, I am sure you will be pleased to hear that we intend to introduce steps that will enable a move to an electoral card, using smart card technology, signature verification or other personal identifiers. As well as being one of your own Committee's recommendations this was by far the most favoured option with the Northern Ireland political parties. How this will bring into effect many of the recommendations in the Select Committee's report is detailed in our response to your report.

The move towards an electoral card will necessitate individual rather than household registration for the Electoral Register in Northern Ireland, a step which will require statutory provision. The requirement for primary legislation as well as the measures necessary to put the technology into place means this will not be an immediate change but will remain our long term objective. Individual registration will also allow for the development of signature verification. Again signature verification was one of the most favoured means of improving voter identification discussed in the course of our meetings with the parties.

We also intend to set up a pro-active team to investigate applications for absent and proxy votes, another recommendation in the Select Committee's report that we are happy to be able to support and hope to put this into effect as soon as possible.

In conclusion, I would like to reiterate my appreciation of the work of the Select Committee and again emphasise its value and importance to us in carrying forward our own review. Also, as I mentioned earlier I would be grateful for your agreement to publicising the action we propose to take, by means of a short press statement, a copy of which I attach.[4]

  25 May 1999

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