Rev. Martin Smyth: Does my hon. Friend agree that the real problem is that the Minister was speaking as a legalist? He was just interpreting the law, whereas I was asking whether there was an attempt to change the law to give flexibility, as presiding officers act strictly in accordance with the law. All I was asking for was an improvement in the law to provide better identification.
Mr. Robinson: Of course he does that too. However, I hope that he will explain what is so essential in the additional sheet of the driving licence that it can serve as an identifier at the polling station. Nothing in the additional sheet qualifies it for that. The card from the driving licence is as effective, if not more effective, than the Under-Secretary's proposal, at least in the interim.
Rev. Ian Paisley: It was interesting that at the last election, the chief electoral officer felt that he had to go on television to tell people that it did not matter if their driving licence had the wrong address, because its purpose was to identify the person, not where they lived.
Mr. Robinson: That emphasises the point. I know from speaking to my workers at polling stations, and to those who work for the chief electoral officer on election day, that there is a recurring problem of people turning up with one part of a driving licence and being sent away. Often, they do not return, sometimes simply because of the inconvenience.
Mr. Barnes: Would not the problem be overcome by using only one cardthe electoral cardinstead of driving licences and passports? Everyone would be subject to the same arrangements, and the difficulty of determining which bit of the driving licence to hand in would be resolved.
Mr. Robinson: It would if everyone had the card. I shall return to that idea later. However, I am worried that we could disfranchise many people simply because they will not go through the rigmarole necessary to get the card.
Lembit Öpik: On the mainland of the United Kingdom, the electoral register and the council tax system are closely connected. Would not a smart card resolve the problemnot the card that the Under-Secretary mentioned, but a smart card that showed whether a person had voted? That would prevent people from voting more than once even if they had multiple addresses.
Mr. Robinson: It would, and the smart card was the Select Committee's preferred option. However, the Under-Secretary is not offering that, at least not immediately. He is undertaking a study in the Northern Ireland Office to determine progress on the advances in appropriate technology, but the card that he is currently offering would not carry out that function.
The BBC "Spotlight" programme suggested that multiple entry was a considerable problem. It itemised several cases of six and more people being registered at one-bedroom flatsand those people were all voting. Indeed, in some cases, the same six people were voting from each flat. They happened to be the so-called bodyguards of the Member who was elected for the constituency of Belfast, West (Mr. Adams).
Mr. Barnes: There would be no problem in ending multiple registration. This did not apply in Northern Ireland, but when we had the poll tax, we got used to a system whereby a person's main or sole place of residence had to be designated. The systemunfortunately, in that caseoperated effectively. We could do the same with electoral registration: people could designate their main or sole place of residence, and their vote would be based there. If they moved, there would be a rolling register, and they could be registered at their new residence.
Mr. Robinson: The position as regards the electoral register is improving, and there is no barrier to getting on to the register in Northern Ireland; I believe that people can get on it in a month. That presents no difficulty. However, as the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) said, the best option is a smart card, which tells a story when it is read at the polling station, and shows whether the person has already voted.
Apart from organised fraud through multiple registration, there is home-grown abuse, whereby mothers or fathers register children who have left the house some years ago because they want to give them the opportunity to vote in Northern Ireland even if they do not return to do so. Some also vote elsewhere, and others do not live in the United Kingdom. Those practices have grown over the years.
Multiple registration applies especially with students who come to Belfast. They get a vote there and influence elections, probably more in the constituency of the hon. Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth) than anywhere else. They then return to Fermanagh and South Tyrone, West Tyrone or Mid-Ulster to cast their votes there, too. The electoral office could identify multiple registrations through national insurance numbers, but that
Mr. Browne: Before the hon. Gentleman leaves multiple registration, perhaps he will consider whether someone who is a council tax payer in two areas should have the opportunity of voting in council elections in both areas.
Mr. Robinson: The Under-Secretary forgets the history of the issue in Northern Ireland. He appears to have forgotten the principle of one man, one vote. It was the practice of the Unionist Government to follow what happened in the rest of the United Kingdom, and whoever paid the piper called the tune. People were therefore allowed to vote in an area where they subscribed healthily to the rateable value and contributed to the local council. That meant that in some areas, people had two, three or five votes. That was deemed inappropriate, and the Labour party was most vociferous in its condemnation.
Mr. Browne: I am conscious that I am interrupting the hon. Gentleman, but I suspect that he inadvertently misrepresented my argument. I did not suggest that people who have more than one house in the same council area should be able vote more than oncebut when there is no such conflict and people contribute through council tax in separate council areas, how do we overcome the problem of taxation without representation?
Mr. Robinson: It was Labour party policy that what the Under-Secretary describes should not happen in Northern Ireland. There is no great difference between voting more than once in one constituency and influencing the outcome of an election by voting in more than one constituency. It would probably assist Unionism in Northern Ireland if the right outlined by the Under-Secretary existed. However, people in Northern Ireland are currently allowed to vote in only one constituency.
Mr. Browne: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way to me a third time, but either he misunderstands my point or he is woefully misrepresenting me. I have never suggested that people should be allowed to vote in more than one parliamentary constituency. I merely ask him to consider the simple problem of overcoming the difficulty of taxation without representation for those who pay council tax in two council areas. I do not want to complicate matters by reciting the history of the Northern Ireland electoral system or discussing votes based on houses. I want him to answer my simple point.
Mr. Robinson: The Minister seems to think that there is some great distinction between the ability to vote more than once in a Westminster election and the ability to vote in two council elections. It was in council areas that the main problem in Northern Ireland arose, as it was decided that people should not vote more than once at council level.
Mr. McNamara: The hon. Gentleman is right that the main objection concerned council areas. It was raised not because a person could vote once in a particular area, but because he could have up to eight or nine individual votes.
Mr. Robinson: Perhaps there is some distinction between electoral law in Northern Ireland and in the rest of the United Kingdom. In Northern Ireland, one can vote in only one council area in any election.
Rev. Martin Smyth: I take the point that has been made. There was never a distinction in parliamentary or Stormont elections, but the world got the message of one man, one vote. Only council elections were affected. People who were working and paying rates in one place but living in another were entitled to several votes, but the practice was done away with, largely because of agitation from this House. When the last Government sought to introduce the council tax, or the poll charge, it was not extended to Northern Ireland, as they did not want to recognise that it had been right to maintain the ratepayer's franchise.