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Mr. McGrady: In view of the time, I shall be brief. We welcome the Bill's progress. Electoral fraud in Northern Ireland is an endemic problem. As I said on Second Reading, it is not just a casual or an individual event; it is a concerted, planned campaign in a paramilitary style, carried out by virtually paramilitary organisations.
I repeat that electoral fraud has changed some of the representation of the people to the House, and it could change the direction of politics in Northern Ireland as a whole. That is why the true voice of democracy is so important in Northern Ireland, more so than anywhere else, particularly in these times of change, transition and sensitivity. However long it has taken, we warmly welcome the fact that the Bill will shortly become law.
It bothers me not how the conversion took placewhether it was divine intervention, the road to Damascus, or the eloquence, persuasiveness and logic of members of the Committee that changed the Government's mind. I suspect that the Minister was an ardent adherent of his earlier comments and attitudes to the Select Committee, but was implementing orders to say that the introduction of national insurance numbers as a means of identification was far too complex. I do not think that he ever believed that. I certainly did not believe what he was saying, and I suspect that he did not believe it, either.
We welcome the compulsory registration of multiple registration, where someone is registered elsewhere. That is vital in the context of Northern Ireland. There is also the problem of multiple occupation. In the electoral register of Northern Ireland, there are instances of 10, 12 or 14 people being registered from a two-bedroom flat. That is an interesting concept in terms of human dynamics and it has an adverse impact on election results.
In my brief intervention, I asked about amendment No. 4 to section 5A, concerning the discretion of the registration officer and how the applicant for registration would be assisted if he disputed the registration officer's findings. I referred to electoral courts, but that is much too lofty an authority. What I meant was the hearings of the registration officer, which usually take place in December or January. That should be where the refused applicant is given an opportunity to rebut a decision. After all, it will sometimes be a subjective decision by the registration officer. That should be the setting for an appeal to take place, without prejudice to the person's legal right to a much more formal process in a court of law.
I was interested in the rather short answer that the Minister gave the hon. Member for Belfast, North (Mr. Dodds) about funding, logistics and personnel. I am deeply concerned about those matters, but the Minister touched on them only briefly. He may be able to elaborate in his winding-up speech, if time permits. If the new provisions are to be fully and properly implemented, it is essential that there should be a greater number of personnel, both in the registration offices and particularly in the polling stations on the day of the poll.
It is equally important that personnel be of the calibre and character to understand their duties and to be determined to enforce them. We can legislate all we like, and there can be rules and regulations regarding polling stations, but if the personnel in the polling stations are not confident of back-up in implementing them, all our work will come to naught. I am anxious that, by direction, rule or regulation, personnel should be properly briefed.
I endorse the comments of the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) about the Minister's assurance this evening that the non-photographic identification of a voter at a polling station would be withdrawn by 1 May 2003. That is an ambitious programme for the Minister at this rather late stage of the process. I am somewhat comforted by his assurance, however. Perhaps he can indicate in his winding-up speech or in writing whether he has any further thoughts concerning the matters about which he was going to communicate with members of the Select Committee regarding driving licencesthe photographic part only being available as a means of identification, quite satisfactorilyand regarding what progress has been made in respect of the photo-identity of the elderly citizen through the Translink photographic transport pass. As the process is entirely voluntary, those would help to determine how many people do not have any means of photo-identity and would greatly reduce the number who need to be serviced.
I know that many other hon. Members, especially from Northern Ireland, want to speak, and I would like to hear from them. I must tell the Minister, however, that we are disappointedin some respects severely disappointedby the shortfalls in the Bill and the Lords amendments.
One of the most difficult aspects of voting in Northern Ireland is intimidation on the day at the polling station. We had sought by statute or by regulation the creation of a cordon sanitaire around a polling station, so that political party activists could not act in an intimidatory fashion towards the voter. That has not been taken on board.
I am also deeply disappointed that responsibility for preventing fraud at the polling station still resides primarily with the voluntary party official known as the polling clerk, with all the legal responsibilities and liabilities that he may incur. It is probably the only instance in which a policeman can observe a crime being committed without having the power to intervene to prevent it. Again, that did not come within the compass of the Bill.
Finally, it may be a hoary old chestnut to many in the House, but much of the tension, impersonation and wrongdoing in elections in Northern Ireland could have been ameliorated considerably if the Government had had the courage to introduce that form of election which pertains in every other election in Northern Ireland except elections to the House. I refer to proportional representation. Proportional representation in Northern Ireland applies to European elections, local government elections and Assembly elections. The only elections to which it does not apply are those to the House.
I know the arguments that are used, but I find them rather light arguments, and sometimes spurious. The brutal fact is that by its nature, proportional representation would take much of the sectarian bigotry, hatred and attitudes out of the campaign and would reflect the real wishes of the electorate in Northern Ireland much better than the first-past-the-post system. That system means that if a candidate gets half a dozen votes more than their opponent as a result of fraud or personation, they can win the day. In practical terms, that could not happen under proportional representation.
None the less, I do not want to look a gift-horse in the mouth. On behalf of my party and constituents, I welcome very much this valiant attempt to correct the imperfectionsto put it politelyof our electoral system, and to seek in practical terms to prevent fraud and thereby do away with a lot of the intimidation that the current system engenders.
Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire): In a debate lasting two hours and 23 minutes, I note that the Minister took one hour and 13 minutes to make his speech and respond to the other points that were made. In other words, just over half the time was devoted to the Minister's retraction of the position that he has so assiduously argued at every stage of the Bill's passage until today.
It is understandable that the Minister wanted to take some time to explain how this 11th-hour enlightenment came upon him, although the points that he made were pretty clear to hon. Members in all parts of the Houseexcept those whipped by the Government. I welcome his honesty in implying acceptance that the Government may have been wrong to show such a degree of inflexibility at earlier stages. Apropos of our debate on the programme motion, if time is squeezed towards the end of this debate because of the length of his speech, it will be another instance in which one is made more cautious about such motions. Fortunately, the Government did the right thing
Lady Hermon: I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. I want to make two points. First, in fairness to the Minister, I took up a lot of his time with serious interventions. Secondly, last December, with regard to national insurance numbers, the Minister said:
Lembit Öpik: I agree on both points. I am not condemning the Minister for the time that he took: it is a sign of strength, not weakness, to be willing to respond to interventions across the Floor of the House. It is to his credit that he did not waffle or waste our time with his responses. Furthermore, the hon. Lady's interventions were based on sound understanding of the issues and added value to the debate. I was suggesting only that the Minister and the Government are responsible for working out how much time is required, but I am not even condemning the Minister on that point: if we finish comfortably by 7 o'clock, no damage will have been done. I seek only to put down a marker, as what happens now will guide our future behaviour. However, we have had the debate on the programme motion, Madam Deputy Speaker, so I wish to turn to more substantive points about the amendments.
In view of the debate, the Minister's comments and the proceedings of Standing Committee D on 16 October 2001, all sides now finally agree that the proposal on national insurance numbers is sensible. That position has been firmly held throughout by all parties except the one in government; indeed, it seems that the Minister himself took the same view in his earlier incarnation as a Back Bencher. To the credit of the Government, they have now come round to a commonsense position that is agreed in all other parts of the House. The amendment is welcome, but it has come at the 11th hour. I seek the Minister's explicit reassurance on when he expects all the mechanics that are required to implement it to be in place. Evidently, next year's elections have a fixed date and we want the arrangements to be in place by that time.
As a wistful footnote to the remarks of the hon. Member for Reigate, I point out the changes could have been introduced earlier. In fairness to the Minister, he made the same point. We did not have to wait until 1997 or 1998 to consider the matter, but I accept that the Conservative Government made various efforts to try to close the loopholes that allowed electoral fraud to occur on the massive scale on which it has previously occurred in the Province.
Of course, we will not get certainty even with the introduction of the provisions on national insurance numbers. If people try hard enough, they will find a way through. We are playing a probabilities game, but if the amendment tightens up electoral fraud substantially and reduces it measurably in the ProvinceI shall return to that wider issueit will be worth while.
It seems ironic that the process has required the upper House to talk sense into the Government. I want to make a couple of points about that process, as in some ways the most important lesson for the future is the degree of flexibility that the Government need to ensure that they do not again miss a trick on an issue such as the inclusion of national insurance numbers. I wonder what would have happened if they had been able to whip their vote in the upper House to maintain the Bill in unamended form. I am not saying that the Minister would necessarily have ignored the amendment, but circumstantially speaking, I am aware of the extreme measures that he took to justify the absence of any proposal for change on 16 October 2001.
The hon. Member for Reigate cited the comments made by the Minister in 1998. I suspect that one could argue, perhaps slightly tenuously, that the Data Protection Act 1998 made matters very different, but those changes occurred before October last year, when the Minister was scratching around to try to give the impression that what was being proposed could not be achieved. One of the examples that he gave to show why it would be unreasonable to include the national insurance number related to a childless French woman who was married to a Northern Ireland resident, did not work or claim benefits, but would be entitled to vote. Technically, such people may exist, but I can only conclude from the Minister's volte face that he now accepts that what happens in respect of such a small number of people will be acceptable collateral damage in order to close the loophole. I understand from his comments todayI refer mainly to those made in response to the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon)that such individuals would not be barred from voting by the arrangements that he outlined.