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Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire): I was startled to learn that the first round of the leadership election in the Conservative party coincides with the election of the chairman of the parliamentary Labour party. Surely that is more than a coincidence; or perhaps it is the same election, which would confirm a suspicion that Liberal Democrats have harboured for some time. Let us hope that no electoral fraud is on the go. For the sake of clarification, I point out that I am standing in neither election.
In a way, electoral fraud involves the act of being too eager to vote. Although turnout in the general election overall was down to about 60 per cent., turnout in Northern Ireland can in some circumstances be as high as 200 per cent. The challenge therefore is to get people to vote but to vote only once and without pretending to be someone else.
As we all know, the 1997 general election caused the publication of the several reports that have already been mentioned. Those reports by the Northern Ireland Forum for political dialogue, the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee of the House of Commons and the Secretary of State's Department make the problem clear. They also make it clear that we need some sort of legislative solution because nothing else has worked so far.
In the Westminster Hall debate on 29 March this year, it became clear that there was considerable consensus in the House on this issue. Liberal Democrats form part of that consensus and we accept the need for a Bill. However, as the hon. Member for Solihull (Mr. Taylor) pointed out, it is a shame that it has taken so long for it
We all know that vote-stealing is prevalent in the Province and takes place to a much greater extent than elsewhere in the United Kingdom. Democracy is very much compromised by such activity. Trying to cheat the system is not only very naughty but actually undermines the system for everybody. I also suspect that it is probably damaging to the organisations implicated in illegal activities, because they lose a great deal of credibility with law-abiding citizens who might otherwise be persuaded to vote for them. After all, it is better to vote for an organisation that we do not fully agree with but that we trust than for an organisation that looks like it is willing to pervert the system of democracy in the interest of achieving its ends.
Although it is difficult to quantify the level of abuse taking place during elections in Northern Ireland, it takes place at significant and, at times, possibly election- deciding levels. The report of the elections review "Administering Elections in Northern Ireland" states:
Although it is hard to prove specific cases of electoral fraud, we have a duty to do what we can to stop it. The Bill and the White Paper "Combating Electoral Fraud in Northern Ireland" have a good chance of doing that if they are implemented correctly.
The basis for all electoral activity in Northern Ireland is the electoral register. Unless it is accurate, the opportunities for malpractice are great. The White Paper, which was published in March, states that the chief electoral officer believes that the register is 91 per cent. complete and 94 per cent. accurate. Those figures are pretty good, but they still allow opportunities for fraud to occur and that can make a real difference. Of the 18 Northern Ireland seats in the general election, two had majorities of fewer than 130 votes and four had majorities of fewer than 1,200. With such close results, we must be sure that no funny business is going on. Electoral fraud is a clear danger because it can significantly alter the balance of outcomes in the Province.
The Bill allows the presiding officer discretionary powers to refuse a ballot paper if he has asked for a voter's date of birth and there is still doubt about the voter's identity, prompted either by the information in the specific document or the apparent age of the voter compared with the date of birth supplied. I welcome that measure. I raised the problem in Westminster Hall on 29 March when I explained that it would be possible for me turn up at a polling station with my grandfather's pension book and say that my date of birth was 1916. I am going grey before my time, but few would believe that I am 85, although some hon. Members might think differently. However, the age gap could be much smaller and the parameters are wide enough to make it possible to vote illegally. So long as the safety measures are watertight before individuals turn up at the polling station, the discretionary powers are a key part of what will make the Bill work.
It has been suggested that the system is most open to abuse through the absent vote procedure. There is a remarkably high rate of absent voting in some areas of Northern Ireland and postal votes are claimed by a larger proportion of people than might be expected given its circumstances. Fraudulent applications are unquestionably made, but we do not know the exact proportion. Getting away with fraud by casting an absent vote in Northern Ireland is probably more straightforward than going to the polling station in person.
Comparing a registered signature with what is on an application for an absent vote will be useful in reducing the chances of fraud, but the White Paper also suggested that forgery could be further reduced by adding a serial number or a bar code to the application form. The Minister also mentioned that. Do the Government intend to redesign the application forms for absent votes in that way? Frankly, I worry that postal vote fraud across the United Kingdom in general is more common than we acknowledge. It is hard to police and if we can find a system that works in Northern Ireland we might want to consider expanding the technique to the rest of the UK. I leave that thought with the Minister.
The Liberal Democrats also welcome the Government's intention to introduce an electoral identity card, although I have some concern about its exact nature. The Minister envisages that in the long term it will be a smart card. By incorporating a computer chip, it will be fairly secure and comprehensive in its content. Although that would be a bit more expensive to produce, it would be much more secure than a plastic or embossed card, which would take us back to square one because it is relatively easy to copy or amend. Someone only has to forge a card with their photograph to put electoral fraud back in business.
Although I welcome what the Minister said about smart cards, we should seriously consider introducing them this time around and accept that we might have to update the technology later. The business sector has extensive experience of smart cards and a model might exist that has been tested in industrial and commercial environments which could be applied to the system in Northern Ireland. I hope that the Minister will think again about introducing a smart card earlier so that we do not risk using a much more forgeable plastic or embossed card, which I fear will be the interim step.
Although the Bill provides for the electoral identity card to be added to the list of specified documents that are needed to obtain a ballot paper, I am worried that there is no provision to remove other documents on the list which are extremely easy to forge, such as the medical card. The hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) made an important point about that. No one wants to disfranchise honest voters, but the identity card will be more effective and harder to forge if it is produced properly as a smart card. We need to think seriously about that.
If we are making a concerted effort to highlight the existence of an electoral identity card, especially for the elderly and infirm, it is sensible to think about abandoning some documents so that we remove the most obvious forms of forgery and malpractice from the electoral process. The Minister commented on that, but I hope that we will be clearer on the subject in Committee so that we can be confident that we are taking a radical step by eliminating some of the open goals for opportunists.
I hope that the Minister will answer my questions. I trust that he agrees with the need to balance the maintenance of wide access to voting with protecting the fairness of our democracy. We will not eliminate electoral fraud completely, but we can significantly reduce the theft of votes and increase the chances of detection.
To some extent, the proposals infringe on a person's privacy. They require more information than is asked for in elections elsewhere in the UK. I am concerned that we should not set an open-ended precedent. I do not like the way that the state's interference in personal matters is developing in our society. The reach of the state is encroaching ever further on our freedom and privacy. In that context, the Bill is another move in the wrong direction. It is an evil, but the difficulty is that without it a small number of cheats stand to make a huge difference to other people's freedom to have a fair electoral process. I may not like it, but I am willing to live with it because, on balance, it improves the important electoral process in Northern Ireland.
However, let me put down a marker: there must be a limit to how far we go. The Minister agreed with that. If we do not temper the tendency, one day we will look back and discover that there is no way to return to the relative, although diminishing, freedoms in British society. As other hon. Members said, if we push too far, we will create barriers that disfranchise people who cannot be bothered with the complexities of proving their identity by jumping through the hoops before they are allowed to vote.
That said, it is our role to protect the interests of the vast majority of Northern Ireland citizens who respect democracy. The Bill gives us a chance to challenge the people who prefer to cheat the electoral system than to