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7.40 pm

Mr. Kevin McNamara (Hull, North): I should first like to apologise to my hon. Friend the Minister, to the hon. Member for Solihull (Mr. Taylor) and to other hon. Members for the fact that I was not here when the debate started. As I explained in a letter to Mr. Speaker, I was asked some time ago to chair a meeting in Portcullis House on the working of the Human Rights Commissions in Northern Ireland and in the Republic of Ireland, and it was not an obligation that I could get out of. Consequently, I had not planned to seek to speak in this debate.

My hon. Friends in the Social Democratic and Labour party have not been able to attend the debate because they are with the Prime Minister, as are the leaders of the Ulster Unionist party, trying to find a peaceful solution to the problems of Northern Ireland and specifically to address the four issues that are besetting the peace process. The points that I shall make are essentially those that they would have made if they were not with the Prime Minister, the Taoiseach and the leaders of the other pro-agreement parties.

The SDLP has identified three main types of electoral fraud in Northern Ireland. The first is multiple registration and voting whereby voters are registered at various addresses—perhaps their parents' and friends' addresses—as well as at their own. Currently there is very little that can be done to identify or prevent that practice.

Personation of electors, particularly of those who do not usually use their vote, is the second type of fraud. It is committed with the assistance of forged identification, and medical cards are often used as they are simple in design and carry no photograph. Today, we have heard one anecdote after another about how that type of fraud has been committed. The need very strongly to address that issue is widely recognised.

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The third type of fraud is the fraudulent application for postal and proxy votes. It, too, is often committed by using the names of non-voters or by using false registrations for uninhabited houses. However, the list of those in receipt of postal votes is and must remain available to the public. The date of issue of postal votes is also known. Consequently, people are able to go round and collect those postal votes and use them fraudulently.

An equally important sub-category of fraud occurs in cases in which people have properly applied for a postal vote, or have been persuaded to apply for one, after which people visit their house and intimidate them or threaten them and take it from them. We know that that happens on both sides of the community divide.

The worst thing that can possibly happen to a person is that someone take his vote from him and use it wrongly. That is stealing that person's identity, personality and most basic stake in democratic society. That is why we should take the matter very seriously regardless of where it occurs, whether in Northern Ireland or Great Britain. The right to vote is sacred to people and vital to their individuality and dignity. We must always treat seriously cases in which an attempt is made to remove someone's vote by fraud, threat or intimidation.

The SDLP feels that Ministers have gone some way towards achieving proper prevention of some of the fraud. However, like other hon. Members who have spoken in this debate, SDLP Members feel that the measures do not go far enough and that other measures could have been introduced to deal with the problem. We have already heard exchanges on the possible benefits of smart cards, which may be introduced. However, certainly the most depressing feature of the Bill is that it does not contain a timetable on removing the right to use non-photographic evidence. We do not welcome the fact that some forms of identification that are subject to fraud will still be accepted. The Bill could, as an indication of the Government's intention, provide for regulation and statutory instruments to do away with non-positive means of identification.

SDLP Members also believe that it would have been far better to include a requirement for voters to present a national insurance number, as each national insurance number is individual and distinct to every member of society. Everyone over 16 in Northern Ireland has a national insurance number. If those seeking to vote were required to provide their date of birth and national insurance number, it would be quite simple to use computers to check for multiple registrations and the fraudulent use of those numbers. The computer system would know how many national insurance numbers were extant in Northern Ireland at a particular time.

Mr. Grieve: I am very interested to hear the hon. Gentleman's comments on the subject, and we may hear more about it from the Minister. However, my understanding of the issue, is that, unfortunately, there are far more national insurance numbers floating around the United Kingdom than there are heads of population. My experience as prosecuting counsel in benefit fraud cases for the then Department of Social Security was certainly that numbers could be obtained with ease and that some individuals possessed enormous multiples of numbers.

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I therefore wonder whether national insurance numbers really provide the protection that the hon. Gentleman is seeking.

Mr. McNamara: Northern Ireland's population is much smaller than that of Great Britain and there are specific Northern Ireland national insurance numbers. They could therefore assist in creating a system to deal with the problem.

Rev. Martin Smyth: I appreciate the point that the hon. Gentleman is arguing. Even in Northern Ireland, however, it is amazing how people are able to obtain multiple national insurance numbers. One of my constituents was convicted of theft after manufacturing 25 national insurance numbers for 25 ghost customers.

Mr. McNamara: I understand what the hon. Gentleman is saying. It is perhaps unfortunate that his constituent was discovered before he drew his old age pension as he would have had a reasonably large pension.

As I said, SDLP Members believe that national insurance numbers could be used with computers as an effective means of quickly and effectively checking identities. They also believe that we have to have a timetable to stop using non-photographic identity.

SDLP Members also believe that the Bill should contain other provisions. Although some other hon. Members may not agree with them, they believe that there should be a 100-metre limit on canvassing, posting and other party political activity around all polling stations, primarily to allay voters' anxieties and to reassure people that the polling station is a neutral zone. They believe that the withdrawal of partisan posters and active canvassing for 100 yards or so will help people to avoid the intimidation to which the hon. Member for Belfast, North (Mr. Dodds) referred. They see that as useful in preventing electoral fraud.

My SDLP colleagues believe that we should address the powers of the personnel involved with election-day procedures. They have given the example of one of the few instances in which a police officer can observe a crime being committed but be powerless to take action because he is in a difficult situation. If he proceeded to take action, it would probably lead to a considerable breach of the peace and, perhaps, the closure of the polling station because of a riot ensuing. My hon. Friends would like to see a cordon sanitaire and more powers to prevent crimes such as personation.

Mr. Grieve: What does the hon. Gentleman think about tellers? In Great Britain, parties put tellers into polling stations to note who has voted. Telling is what I might call almost a village fair occupation, with people having pleasant conversations and exchanging information. That is certainly the case in my constituency. If the restrictions that the hon. Gentleman proposes were to be introduced, that would prevent telling from taking place. That might be seen as an infringement of a legitimate right of people to inquire as to who is voting.

Mr. McNamara: As I understand from my visits to polling stations in Northern Ireland, telling agents are inside, rather than outside, the stations. Some presiding officers in the UK insist that the tellers are outside the

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polling station and, in my constituency, tellers have not been allowed in when the weather has been inclement. The situation is somewhat different in Northern Ireland.

My SDLP colleagues would like the Bill to contain provisions to examine the training and resources given to the electoral officer to ensure that the reforms, when passed by this House, can be implemented quickly and efficiently. It is one thing to vote for a scheme, and another to provide the money and training to enable it to take place. The sooner that that is done, the sooner many of the Government's wishes can be carried through.

My hon. Friends in the SDLP disagree to a limited extent with some of the comments made by members of the DUP concerning multiple constituency representation and proportional representation. My hon. Friends find it anomalous that, of all the elections in Northern Ireland, it is only the election for the UK Parliament that remains first past the post. They believe that there would be far fairer representation under multiple constituency representation—fairer for all the factions present in Northern Ireland.

The SDLP also believes that if such a system of proportional representation were introduced, much of the impetus that is given to some organisations to resort to illegal practices would be gone because they would get fair representation. That would overcome the problem to which the hon. Member for Belfast, North referred when he said that a fraction of fraudulent votes could swing a seat one way or the other. SDLP Members believe that multiple representation within Westminster elections would work the other way from that outlined by the hon. Member for Belfast, North.

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