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6.30 pm

Lady Hermon (North Down): Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to speak in this debate.

May I congratulate the Minister on his first outing at the Dispatch Box? Ulster Unionist Members also have high expectations that he will make a positive contribution to business in Northern Ireland, so he has a lot to live up to.

I apologise for the absence of several of my colleagues. They too are involved in the talks about the Belfast agreement, so duty calls them elsewhere.

I have listened to anecdotal evidence of electoral fraud. Also, I grew up in Fermanagh and South Tyrone, where I frequently heard the words, "Vote early and vote often", so I can tell the House that in those days, which were not long ago, it was easier to identify electoral fraud because the reward for personation was a bottle of Guinness. For those hon. Members who do not understand how powerful a bottle of Guinness is, I should point out that by 10 o'clock in the evening, it was easy to identify those who had benefited from voting early and voting often. I should add that, having been brought up in a strict Presbyterian home, I just voted once.

The Minister has a particular interest in human rights, so I begin my comments on the Bill by reminding him of the Government's obligations to everyone in the United Kingdom, including those of us in Northern Ireland. The Minister will know that under article 3 of the first protocol of the European convention on human rights, which is of course now part and parcel of our domestic law, by virtue of the Human Rights Act 1998, the Government have a clear duty: not only must they hold free elections at reasonable intervals by secret ballot, but they must do so

The Government have a duty to impose conditions that will ensure—not merely try to ensure—the free expression of the people's wishes.

For too many years we in Northern Ireland have had to endure electoral fraud, rather than enjoy conditions that ensure the free expression of people's voting preferences. The White Paper "Combating Electoral Fraud in Northern Ireland" was published in March. The title itself encouraged us to believe that, for a change, the Government were serious about eradicating electoral fraud. Our hopes were high when we read that they pledged

I regret to report that my hopes have been dashed by the Bill. I am bitterly disappointed because it fails fully to implement the proposals in the White Paper, and not being a patient person at the best of times I thought that three years was a long time to wait for it. Having waited

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for those three years and for a month after the local elections and the general election, we have before us a weak Bill. My list of its various weaknesses will not be exhaustive because I do not want to keep hon. Members here for a long time.

Although the White Paper rightly focused on intimidation at polling stations, the Bill completely ignores it. We have just had an election in which two RUC officers and a bystander were injured at a polling station. Intimidation is a serious problem, and I would like the Government to pay attention to it in Committee.

The Bill is also silent on multiple registration. The Minister has kindly defended multiple registration on the grounds of convenience for students and people who live in different places. However, people have to identify their main residence for the purposes of taxation, and I see no justification for a difference in electoral law. Multiple registration is far too open to abuse, so it should be made illegal. A person should be asked to register and vote where they reside for the majority of the time, and since no one can reside in two places for the majority of the time everyone must choose one residence.

On the new identifiers of dates of birth and signatures, I feel compelled to remind the Government that electoral fraud in Northern Ireland is orchestrated and widespread, and has a significant impact on election results. It devalues the results and undermines the authority of those who are elected. I regret that the Bill fails to give a statutory basis to increased powers and increased staffing for the electoral office investigation teams, which would enable them to scrutinise thoroughly the accuracy of the signatures and dates of birth on the electoral canvass.

Lembit Öpik: Could we not allow multiple registration to continue with the operation of a smart card, which would be able to register whether people had voted? I ask because many people in the United Kingdom as a whole would be compromised if we required them to choose one place or another for their registration, and a smart card would provide an electronic solution to the problem.

Lady Hermon: We are told that Northern Ireland leads the way in so many things, such as policing reform and human rights legislation, so I hope that smart card technology will be introduced to allow us to lead the way in electoral registration.

To include in the Bill an exception to the rule requiring signatures on the electoral canvass will, I fear, prove to be a gift horse to those who are intent on fraud, and people are intent on it. The gift horse comes in the form of the discretion afforded to the chief electoral officer to dispense with the requirement for a signature

Forgive me, Mr. Deputy Speaker, if I sound cynical when I predict an increase in the recorded illiteracy rate in Northern Ireland. It would appear logical and sensible that those who are genuinely incapacitated or unable to read should be able to avail themselves of the new identity card proposed in the Bill. That would close a potential loophole for those who are intent on fraud.

Although Ulster Unionist Members welcome the introduction of the new, voluntary identity cards, we very much regret that the Bill does not end the use of

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non-photographic forms of identity, such as medical cards which, as the Minister knows, have enabled fraudulent activities in Northern Ireland to become a growth industry. The fact that there is no firm timetable for phasing out those forms of ID is a severe failing of the Bill, and I ask the Minister to give it his attention in Committee.

There is no denying that absent votes represent a major source of electoral fraud. It is on record that in the 1997 general election, Northern Ireland constituencies had on average twice as many absent voters as constituencies in Great Britain. That cannot be explained simply by the fact that we have more rural constituencies. There is a huge inconsistency in the distribution of absent votes in Northern Ireland.

The most recent election results show that in West Tyrone, which was won by Sinn Fein, there were 5,443 absent votes, and in Fermanagh and South Tyrone, which was also taken by Sinn Fein, there were 5,784 absent votes. Let us compare those figures with the 1,200 absent votes in my constituency of North Down, which has an average number of such votes. In Lagan Valley, we had 1,500. Absent votes allow fraud and should be given much more detailed attention in the Bill.

I therefore repeat my introductory remarks to the Government: they have an obligation under the Human Rights Act to ensure that conditions are put in place guaranteeing people free expression of their choice of legislature. It would be distinctly embarrassing for the Government to be taken to task by a voter who said that, in fact, they were breaching their human rights obligations. As I mentioned, in Northern Ireland we are told regularly that we are leading the way on police reform, human rights and the equality agenda. You name it, we have got it and are leading the way. We should lead the way with smart cards and new technology. The technology is out there; it should not be our future but our present. Having waited impatiently for the Bill for three years, I now urge the Minister to follow it quickly with more substantial reform to eradicate, rather than acquiesce in, electoral fraud.

6.41 pm

Mr. Peter Robinson (Belfast, East): First, I congratulate the Minister and welcome his debut at the Dispatch Box. For some time he was a colleague of mine on the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs where—as I am sure that the hon. Member for East Antrim (Mr. Beggs) agrees—he played a constructive role. Unlike many others from the major parties who served on the Select Committee almost as place fillers, he showed a conscientious interest in the matters before him and played a full part in our proceedings. Indeed, I took the trouble to dredge up the Select Committee report on electoral abuse to look at his contribution, and I shall refer later to some of the interesting points that he made. I join him in his tribute to the hon. Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth), with whom many of us had meetings on this subject in Northern Ireland, and who showed an interest in attempting to do something that would stop the electoral abuse about which we all had a growing concern.

The House, I am sure, will give the Bill a broad welcome—at least in general terms. It would hard for it to do otherwise. It is obscene that anyone's vote should

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be stolen, and that anyone should take more than one vote in their own name. In Northern Ireland, particularly with proportional representation by means of the single transferable vote, the stealing of one vote by one person can deny the rights of thousands of people, because a fraction of one vote in a PR election can determine a seat. That form of cheating must be brought to an end as far as possible.

The Minister made some remarks about the history of interest in the subject. As the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes), who came as a witness before the Northern Ireland Forum committee on which I served, said, that committee produced the first recent report on the subject. That report was valuable and drew attention to the type of problem faced in elections in Northern Ireland. However, the forum committee, like the Select Committee, felt the same frustration that the Minister expressed in the Select Committee when attempting to quantify the scale of the problem during the cross-examination—I think it is fair to call it that—of Pat Bradley, who was then chief electoral officer for Northern Ireland. Everybody knew that abuse was taking place on a considerable scale, but there did not seem to be any real attempt by the electoral office to quantify it.

Although the Bill is being introduced now, it is still important for the electoral office to conduct an exercise to quantify the level of electoral abuse. Evidence both to the forum committee and to the Select Committee produced a number of examples of considerable electoral abuse, giving us a flavour of the high level of electoral abuse in Northern Ireland and demonstrating the need to take action.

The Select Committee reported in March 1998, but it had to return to the subject by urging—I was going to say "prodding", but it may not be appropriate to use that word about Northern Ireland matters in the House—the Secretary of State to introduce the legislation that had been promised on the subject. I agree with those who have already drawn attention to foot-dragging by Ministers and by the Northern Ireland Office in introducing the Bill.

It therefore came as something of a surprise when, only a few months before parliamentary and local government elections, the then Minister, the hon. Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East, told us that he was contemplating rushing the legislation through before the end of the last Parliament. For many of us, that would have been the worst of all worlds; we would have had new legislation without ID cards being distributed, and people would start to be disfranchised because of the loss of the usual identifiers—medical cards and benefit books.

Existing methods of identification are fairly well known; there has already been reference to the driving licence. During his speech, the Minister was twice asked to give way by Members wishing to ask about the driving licence. I do not know about the rest of the House, but he certainly did not convince me that it was necessary to have both parts of the driving licence. Indeed, he went on to explain the attributes of the new card. The explanatory notes to the Bill say that the electoral identity card will show

Consistent with that, the Minister said that those would be the features of the identification card.

I have with me the plastic part of the driving licence used in Northern Ireland, and on it is a name—indeed, it goes further, it has an address as well—a date of birth,

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an expiry date and a photograph, all of which are features that the Minister says his identity card will have. The driving licence has not only the additional feature of an address, but a signature too, so in many ways it is a better identification card than that proposed by the Minister. However, when I look at the part of the driving licence that the Minister tells us it is essential to have along with the plastic card, I see nothing on it that adds in any way to the information required by the presiding officer in any polling station. Indeed, if any part of the present two-part driving licence is easy to forge it is that piece, which, we think, can be discarded.

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