Previous SectionIndexHome Page

9.40 pm

Mr. Quentin Davies: The Minister began by saying that the Bill had been largely unchanged since its introduction. That does not merit self-congratulation, let alone complacent self-congratulation; instead, it is of considerable concern to everyone inside and outside the House who cares about how this place works.

The Government have used their massive majority to override the combined suggestions based on the separate wisdom and experience of every other party in the House, including those from Northern Ireland. Unfortunately, Northern Ireland parties rarely find a consensus, but they have this time, and the Government will not listen to them because they have a massive parliamentary majority and do not care. That is shameful. This is not an attractive episode or an edifying moment in Parliament. The phrase that the Minister used should weigh on his conscience.

I do not think that the Minister is personally responsible for the way in which the legislation has been treated. It is not a case of his being personally arrogant or obtuse; he merely reflects the culture and frame of mind into which the Government have fallen after more than four and a half years of taking for granted a massive parliamentary majority and using a regiment of spin doctors who believe that they can manipulate the press with impunity. They believe that they can close their minds to every other influence and insight that is available and that should be brought to bear in the formulation of legislation. It has not been a good evening for Parliament or the Minister. He was having to thrash around to find excuses for the position that he is forced to defend.

The first group of amendments dealt with the deadline for introducing photographic identification in Northern Ireland. A deadline is not a matter of principle or even substance; it is an administrative matter. However, the Minister was forced to concede that there were no administrative objections to having a deadline. He said that he had to consult before he could accept the proposal. As the Government consult only on matters of substance and principle, the consultation is immaterial to the acceptance of deadlines. He lost credibility by taking that line.

We also debated the declaration of multiple addresses when someone chooses to register at different addresses for the purposes of an election. The Minister got out of

31 Oct 2001 : Column 971

an awkward spot in Committee by promising to consult in time for the debate on Report, but he told us today that he did not have time to consult properly, so he has contradicted himself.

We also discussed using national insurance numbers to protect against electoral fraud in Northern Ireland. We were told that the Minister took a different view when he was a Back Bencher on the Northern Ireland Affairs Select Committee. Once again, he has contradicted himself. That is a serious state of affairs, especially for someone in public life and with accountable responsibilities. To manage to contradict oneself twice during the proceedings of the same Bill in the same evening is unfortunate. I can only feel sorry for him, but when he accepted the role of spokesman for a Government who act in such a fashion, he committed himself to suffering those humiliations. None of us feels the same degree of personal sympathy for him as we would for any other human being in similarly invidious circumstances.

Despite the fact that I sincerely mean everything that I have said so far, I want to end on a serious but positive note. It would be perverse of the Opposition to vote against Third Reading. If we can get a whole loaf of bread, we will take it, but we will accept half, three quarters or one quarter of a loaf if that is all we can get. We shall continue to battle here, in the other place and elsewhere, but for now we will accept the Bill as a positive contribution to the workings of democracy in Northern Ireland.

The Bill has appeared at a moment of high drama in the Province. Last week, we heard encouraging news of the first act of decommissioning by Sinn Fein-IRA. Although there is a constitutional crisis, we hope that it will be resolved this Friday—

Mr. Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman knows that we are discussing the Bill, not other matters. We cannot go wide of the Bill.

Mr. Davies: I was only touching briefly on the context in which the Bill will proceed to the other place and thereafter—in an improved form, we hope—on to the statute book.

Now is an opportune time to reflect on the way in which democracy works in Northern Ireland—its mechanisms and safeguards. We all hope that from the context that I briefly described will emerge a rosier future for democracy, and that people will have greater confidence in the devolved institutions of Northern Ireland and their ability to meet the aspirations of the electorate. Now is a good time to debate such a Bill as this.

It is obvious that among Northern Ireland's many problems is an unfortunate tradition of electoral abuse and fraud more prevalent than is usual elsewhere in the United Kingdom. Northern Ireland Members on both sides of the House have, with their characteristic frankness and honesty, accepted that fact. It lies with us to do something about it, and we are doing so. We are improving the system, albeit not as fully as we wanted to while the Bill was in the Commons. I believe that today we have made a contribution to improving the prospects for the people of the Province and their public life to which the whole House is strongly attached.

31 Oct 2001 : Column 972

9.48 pm

Mr. Trimble: The Bill deals with electoral fraud, so the objective should be to introduce measures to curb electoral fraud in Northern Ireland. There is no doubt that fraud exists, nor about some of the ways in which it is perpetrated.

Toward the end of Committee stage, figures were given on the abnormally high—in relation to other constituencies—number of absent votes cast in certain constituencies in Northern Ireland. There is no doubt, too, that in those constituencies—I have in mind Fermanagh and South Tyrone, Mid–Ulster and West Tyrone—a significant proportion of the absent votes cast are fraudulent. It is likely that the fraudulent votes in those three constituencies are sufficient to account for the results, and that if we had honest voting and honest elections in Northern Ireland, fewer Sinn Fein Members would be returned to serve here—although, of course, they do not serve here.

I am sure that if there had been an honest election in Fermanagh and South Tyrone, Sinn Fein would not have won, and that the person who ought to be and is the true Member of Parliament for that constituency—my colleague Mr. Cooper, who fell victim to the fraud of Sinn Fein, which was assisted by the Democratic Unionist party's choosing to run a candidate in that constituency—would be here tonight.

On Second Reading, my hon. Friend the Member for South Antrim (David Burnside) mentioned the election petition that was then outstanding in respect of that case. Of course, the matter could not be pursued because the case was sub judice. Since then, the election court has made its decision, and I want to share with the House just a few phrases that it used about the conduct of the election and of Sinn Fein in that constituency. The judge referred to "extremely reprehensible" incidents. He said that

meaning that of Sinn Fein—

He then referred to the disturbance in St. Martin's school, Garrison, a polling station where votes were cast well after 10 o'clock. The court said that the disturbance was

That last phrase was accurate in terms of the evidence given to the court, but it is not true. It was not an isolated incident.

After the election petition was lodged within 21 days, as it had to be, in the first week of August, there was reliable and credible information that voting had continued at the polling station at St. Joseph's primary school, Ederney, for a period of approximately 10 minutes and that one of the police personnel present was prepared to appear in court and confirm it. However, because that information was not available earlier, it could not be included in the election petition, and consequently it could not be presented to the court. There is every reason to believe that if that evidence had been given to the court, the result of the petition would have been different.

I referred to that incident to bring out two simple points. First, the rules about election petitions inhibit the giving of evidence. Evidence could not be given in that case because the rules were unduly restrictive. Secondly, and more importantly, the information that became

31 Oct 2001 : Column 973

available after the petition was made should have been available beforehand; it was known to the electoral office, but was not conveyed to anyone. We are considering a Bill on electoral fraud that tries to strengthen the law. The primary responsibility of the electoral office in Northern Ireland ought to be to ensure that the system operates properly and fairly but, disturbingly, when we tried to deal with clear misconduct in the election, our experience was that it was not concerned with bringing out the truth or exposing wrongdoing. It was more concerned with trying to show that everything had been okay and that nothing had really happened. Indeed, its attitude was one of trying to cover up the bad behaviour of Sinn Fein and breaches of electoral law.

Will the Minister reflect on that? If he likes, we can give him more detail about what happened. Will he consider carefully what measures can be introduced in the Bill to ensure that the electoral office carries out its duties properly and sees its first duty as ensuring that the law is observed? If that means ensuring that information is put into the public domain that assists the making of a petition, the office should do so and not try to cover up matters, which was the approach taken in this case.

There is an opportunity in another place to strengthen the Bill further. The Minister congratulated himself on the minimal changes that have been made, but he should try to consult the parties properly, listen to what we have to say and introduce proposals that ensure that electoral law is observed properly and that we get honest results. That would be a significant achievement, and the Minister could then congratulate himself.

Next Section

IndexHome Page