Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Browne: Can the hon. Gentleman work out the probability of somebody whose roots are in the Baltic states being educated in Northern Ireland and representing a Welsh constituency?

Lembit Öpik: As an aside, let me say that when I first applied for selection to represent Montgomeryshire, the Welsh Liberal Democrats held a sweepstake on who would be chosen. The odds against me were regarded as so large that they had to refund some money, because I had not been included on the list. So I accept that stranger things have happened. Perhaps I should also briefly cite the occasion when, somewhat erroneously, somebody said in a moment of rage that there were more Estonians than Etonians in the Cabinet. As the first Estonian to speak on the Floor of the House, I can claim credit for having bucked the statistics.

The Minister tried hard to justify why it would be unacceptable to introduce national insurance numbers as a kind of insurance policy against electoral fraud. All the details are there for hon. Members and the public to see in the record of the Standing Committee on 16 October, so I need not labour the point.

6.30 pm

I suggest that the benefit of being willing to listen to and accept such points at an earlier stage cannot be overstated. Two elements slowed down the process; we could have got here much faster. First, the Minister was apparently under an obligation not to give way on this point in the face of

15 Apr 2002 : Column 407

insuperable, unarguable evidence from all sides that it was a desirable change that would make a considerable difference to the amount of electoral fraud in Northern Ireland. He might have saved us time if he had taken a more circumspect approach, instead of committing himself as he did, thereafter—understandably—not being able to reverse that position until the Bill went to the upper House. Of course, this time the situation has been recovered and we are able to do the right thing now. However, on previous occasions—I shall not give a long list—the Government have been able to push legislation through, to its detriment.

My second point concerns consultation. The hon. Member for Reigate rightly cited an occasion on which neither he nor I had been consulted. The Minister gracefully apologised for that at the time, and has showed some contriteness today.

Mr. Blunt: Contrition.

Lembit Öpik: I thank the hon. Gentleman for the grammar lesson.

Consultation is absolutely vital in dealing with technically complicated matters relating to the Province. The Government have done well in consulting on many pieces of Northern Irish legislation—for example, the Police (Northern Ireland) Act 2000—but this time I felt that Ministers were not necessarily listening to an appropriate degree.

Today's debate may hold lessons for the United Kingdom as a whole as regards electoral fraud. If there is a massive increase in the use of postal votes, we may want to assess what is working in the Province before considering implementing such changes on the mainland. Of course, that must be balanced by civil liberties, cost-benefit considerations and so forth. I put that down as a marker for future debates if it turns out that electoral fraud is prompted or stimulated by changes that we make to the electoral process.

Mr. Browne indicated assent.

Lembit Öpik: I see that the Minister has some sympathy with that point.

It is to the Government's credit that they have finally listened, although it has taken a long time for us to get here. I am confident that these changes will make a difference to the opportunity for organised electoral fraud to take place in the Province, although realistically it may still be possible. As the Minister said, we have conquered the summit of the debate together, but if the Government had listened to us a little more we might have found a rather faster route.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire): I am grateful to the hon. Member for South Down (Mr. McGrady) for telling us about the seriousness of this matter. Electoral fraud in Northern Ireland is a massive issue, and we should all be concerned about getting it right. Regardless of whether the Bill gets it absolutely right, it represents a considerable advance.

On using national insurance numbers for electoral registration, I feel a bit like Zebedee in "The Magic Roundabout". At one time I stood in one position, then I jumped to the opposite position, and now I am minded to jump back again—unless something dramatic happens in the next 20 minutes or so.

15 Apr 2002 : Column 408

I, with my hon. Friend the Minister, was a member of the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs that produced the report. Although the Conservative spokesman pointed out that our report said that we should be under no illusion that the national insurance system was perfect, and difficulties were bound to be involved, I and other members of the Committee felt that it offered a unique and precise, if not perfect, set of identifiers, which, despite the qualifications detailed in the report, represented a good idea that could be propounded. I willingly took that position, at which point I was clearest about the issue.

When we listened to what my hon. Friend the Minister said in Standing Committee, it began to emerge that the matter was not as straightforward and clear as we had thought in the Select Committee, and to some extent those doubts remain. The balance may have moved back in the other direction, but the earlier remarks by my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) revealed areas of difficulty. The Minister's argument about the complexity and sophistication of the measures in the amendments, and the fact that other legislation potentially offers a court avenue, seems to tip the argument in favour of the measure that we initially suggested. Nevertheless, I am not as solidly and fully convinced of that as I was when the Select Committee produced the report, because genuine doubts have been sown. I discussed them in Standing Committee, and they are still there.

We will not tackle the problem of electoral registration in Northern Ireland until we tackle it for the whole of the United Kingdom. We must do that by developing a method that is as watertight as we can achieve under a new technology—that is, by using identity cards in the process of electoral registration. We have not yet reached that stage. We cannot do it in this provision for Northern Ireland, so we are making the best guess that we can in the circumstances by finally accepting that national insurance numbers, in addition to the other measures in the Bill, will order matters as well as possible—although nothing is absolutely certain, and there may be difficulties in the courts.

Another major issue is multiple registration. I remain committed to the view that that should not take place. The only concept worthy of picking up from the poll tax is that there could be registration at one sole or main place of residence. Rolling registers should enable us to develop to a position whereby a person is mainly resident in one area, in which they exercise their franchise. Again, that cannot simply be added to this provision for Northern Ireland. Indeed, Northern Ireland raises problems as regards extending registration of a single nature throughout the rest of Britain, because it has a three-month registration period. That is probably necessary so that areas are not manipulated and flooded by people deliberately moving in from the Republic of Ireland to distort a particular electoral result. As long as there is a three-month waiting period in Northern Ireland, and we are trying to fix a system with Britain, it will not be possible to have single registration provisions. We shall have to crack that problem in future.

The rolling electoral register has exacerbated the problem because as soon as people move elsewhere in the United Kingdom, they can register in the place that should

15 Apr 2002 : Column 409

be their sole or main place of registration. If they move from Britain to Northern Ireland, they will have to wait three months before registering there. That will hold matters up. It will not be easy simply to move registration from one area to another.

Although I have some principled proposals that, I believe, would improve electoral registration for the whole United Kingdom and be especially beneficial in Northern Ireland, where there are considerable problems, the measure is welcome. I believe that we have got it about right.

Lady Hermon: I shall keep my remarks brief because I have intervened several times. I am conscious that other hon. Members, and not only those with Northern Ireland constituencies, want to contribute.

The Bill is infinitely better than the version that first saw the light of day. Including national insurance numbers as well as signatures and dates of birth will reduce the opportunities for electoral fraud in Northern Ireland. That must be welcomed. I pay tribute to those in the Northern Ireland Office and those who drafted the amendments on such a technical aspect of law. They have done an excellent job.

When I entered the Chamber this afternoon, I had two main reservations. First, hon. Members know that the original Bill made a specific dispensation for those who are incapacitated or unable to read. They are not required to provide a signature. The amendments require national insurance numbers or a statement that a person does not have one, and a statement about residence. It was unclear whether the voter had to make those statements. The Bill and the amendments do not provide a dispensation equivalent to that for providing a signature.

My anxiety deepened when I read the debate in the other place on 25 February 2002. Lord Williams of Mostyn made matters clear. He said:

Suffice it to say that I was worried about the lack of an exemption for people who are incapacitated or unable to read and had to make a statement about residence or their national insurance numbers. The Minister's comments were designed to be useful and helpful, and he clarified the matter. He said that the statement does not necessarily have to be made by the elector. The amendments do not make that clear, and I greatly appreciate the Minister's clarification.

That leaves the three-month residence requirement. The Minister provided some insight and said that the requirement has existed since 1949. If he has been able to find the relevant legislation, it is doubtless an old Stormont measure.

Next Section

IndexHome Page