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5.55 pm

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire): It is good when work with which one has been personally associated eventually makes it through the legislative process. That has not happened often in my experience, so I am glad that the Bill has been introduced.

I gave evidence to the committee of the Northern Ireland Forum which, in 1997, published the valuable report on electoral malpractice that was referred to earlier. Like my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary and other Members in the Chamber this evening, I served on the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs which,

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in March 1998, issued a report on electoral malpractice in Northern Ireland. The hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) was involved in the production of both reports. The work of those committees seems to have pushed the Northern Ireland Office into action, because it started work on its own report shortly after the Select Committee began its investigations. The NIO report was published in October 1998.

The hon. Member for Solihull (Mr. Taylor) cited the Select Committee report published in January 2001 in which concerns were expressed that legislation had not been introduced sooner. Peter Brooke chaired the Select Committee admirably. He had had experience of Northern Ireland as its Secretary of State and enabled us to find a form of words that helped us along the road to the peace process. As one would have expected, his work on the Select Committee always drew on his experience.

The Bill contains a manifest defect, which I shall deal with later. I shall of course support the Bill on Second Reading, but I shall look for opportunities to table amendments at a later stage, especially in relation to the defect that I shall mention.

Although it has been pointed out that the Select Committee report contains many references to problems of electoral fraud in Northern Ireland, the hard quantifiable detail that people might require to demonstrate those problems is not given in the report or elsewhere. It is important to set up investigations such as the one currently under way into marked electoral registers. That investigation will find out which voters in recent elections are not recorded as voting in past elections, and will check whether they really did vote recently or whether their vote had been appropriated by a political party.

As the hon. Member for Solihull noted, there is sufficient evidence in the Select Committee report to support our justified concerns and fears about the operation of elections in Northern Ireland. That is partly because of the strong sectarian attitudes in certain parts of Northern Ireland society. It is felt that the ends justify the means, so the niceties of the electoral game and the commitment of democrats to that game can readily and easily be abused by people for their own ends.

There is a limited commitment to the democratic process in certain areas of party political activity. If Sinn Fein had that commitment, it would certainly take action on issues such as decommissioning, but it does not act according to those principles. The hope is that the more it is involved in the democratic process, the more the process will have an influence on its operations, values and attitudes. However, that is certainly not happening at the moment, and the major electoral fraud that takes place in Northern Ireland is clearly associated with that party.

We are having to make key decisions on the Bill at a time when a clear divide exists in Northern Ireland. Assembly elections, which may be upon us soon, need to take place in the context of our having such legislation tightly in place because, in the nationalist camp, it matters tremendously whether it is Sinn Fein or the Social Democratic and Labour party that achieves the largest number of votes and seats and which of them can rightly claim to speak on behalf of the nationalist community. The same can be said of the Democratic Unionist party and the Ulster Unionist party in relation to that community.

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In the case of the DUP, some of us are very worried that the no vote position will hold sway. In the case of the nationalists, if Sinn Fein—a party which had played with the peace process and arranged for people to vote in association with it but clearly did not have the fully fledged commitment to it that should exist—took over, it would be in the driving seat of the nationalist position. Several of us would not like those results; we would like the majorities in favour of the agreement to hold sway politically, but that must happen in the fairest way possible and in accordance with electoral practices.

The methods of vote-stealing are clearly listed in the reports that I have mentioned. The addresses of demolished buildings have been used, although we have heard that action has been taken to ensure that the information is available to returning officers to allow them to determine whether addresses are legitimate. There have been over-subscribed numbers in households. In those cases, a suspiciously unlikely number of people have been registered as living at a house of a certain size.

The high level of multiple registration is also a problem. Rolling registration, which has now been established, reduces the need for multiple registration. Is multiple registration necessary if people can move from one part of the Province to another and relatively quickly establish their new addresses as those from which they will vote? We should be able to operate systems, especially with rolling registration, that get rid of multiple registration, or we should take action to reduce its operation considerably, and I believe that that applies to the whole United Kingdom.

Forged and fraudulently used medical cards, allowance books and so on are another problem. The Select Committee was provided with evidence to show that the Royal Ulster Constabulary had discovered factories that manufactured forged documents, although there had been an attempt to burn those documents. The suggestion that electoral cards, with photographs on them, should be used is partly a response to that problem. That is one avenue that could be used.

The rush of last-minute voter applications has been mentioned, and there has also been abuse of marked registers. The evidence from the electoral returning officer showed that much more common than a vote cast in the name of someone who had died and should no longer appear on the register was a vote cast—clearly by someone who had looked very closely at the marked register—in the name of someone who did not normally exercise their franchise rights.

Intimidation, such as following the postman when postal votes are used, and intimidation involving the electorate more generally are serious matters which might not be dealt with easily by the issue of cards with photographs on them.

Rev. Ian Paisley (North Antrim): The hon. Gentleman mentions intimidation. People are visited and asked for their medical cards, which are taken from them. That is the highest form of intimidation, but it happens regularly in some areas, where two men go to people's doors saying that they are collecting medical cards, and all those votes are then cast in a clandestine and illegal way.

Mr. Barnes: Of course, that problem will be tackled under the Bill, but a similar problem will remain because

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people may have other forms of identification and their electoral cards taken away from them. That is why returning officers need to check dates of birth at polling stations. The solution suggested in the Bill is that, except in the case of incapacitated and illiterate people, dates of birth and signatures will be required when registration takes place.

As my hon. Friend the Minister has said, the Select Committee and the forum committee suggested that national insurance numbers should also be used. Such a suggestion is not unique in electoral activities throughout the world. Some countries have identity cards and they use them in their electoral systems. I am increasingly of the opinion that identity cards would be fruitful in achieving full and correct registration in the United Kingdom generally.

In Malta, for example, people's identification numbers appear on the electoral register and their dates of birth can be worked out from those numbers. That system functions well in a small country that prides itself on the fact that more than 90 per cent. of its people turn out at elections. Malta operates a system in which cards with photographs on them are issued at each election. People hand in those cards at the polling stations, so those who are found to have old cards did not vote at previous elections.

Presiding officers can now ask people for additional information—their date of birth—when the vote takes place, but why cannot signatures also be used, as they could also be checked at polling stations? Surely if there is any doubt about whether someone has stolen a card and has had the wit to discover the date of birth of the person from whom it was stolen, the signature would constitute an extra factor. In fact, signatures are only being used to check postal and proxy applications. It is right that signatures should be used for those purposes, and the committee of the Northern Ireland Forum made recommendations along those lines. It said:

That would provide an extra check, and it is a point that we could pursue in Committee.

The election identity card will replace other documents that do not bear a photograph and it could be used in the same way as a passport or driving licence. However, we must be careful not to create two classes of citizens. Some people already have the passports and driving licences that they obtained for other purposes while others will have to search out the electoral identity card that will be freely supplied. When my hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth) was a Minister in the Northern Ireland Office, he pointed out that considerable efforts would be made to ensure that people had electoral registration cards. He said:

I welcome such an approach, but why will not everyone be obliged to take part in it?

The White Paper suggests that 400,000 to 600,000 electors in Northern Ireland may need electoral identity cards. They are part of an electorate of 1.2 million, so it

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is possible that one third or 50 per cent. of the electorate may be involved in the new form of registration. To support the view that there should be an electoral registration card, I cite the views of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee. In response to evidence given by the then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Dr. Mowlam, it stated:

The question that elicited that response from Dr. Mowlam was asked by the hon. Member for South Down (Mr. McGrady) and, in reply, she said:

Such a system sticks in my throat for practical democratic reasons. The people who do not have driving licences or passports are likely to be more elderly and poorer and it might be more difficult to persuade them to take up the provisions on offer. They will be much less likely to do so if they do not act together with other people.

I hope that the Bill will be amended so that that defect is overcome and that we operate with a card that is used by everyone. That might lead us to consider seriously whether we should use identity cards as the basis for what takes place at the polling station.

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