Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Bill

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Mr. Andrew Turner: Does the hon. Gentleman accept that line 17 on page 2 states that

    ``The entitlement of a person to remain registered . . . terminates if the form mentioned . . . does not include''

the necessary data? It does not say that the person will not be registered.

Mr. Barnes: I have not looked at that in detail yet. I shall look at it closely. However, the Minister said that he understood that the position was as I described it.

The hon. Member for Reigate favoured the amendments that would mean that the national insurance number facilitated proper and correct registration but did not accept subsequent amendments, which suggested that it would be used as a second identifier in polling stations. Certainly I have a great fear about the second identifier having to be used and people being asked to bring or to remember it, or to have it placed upon the electoral identity card, which will not cover everyone at present.

The problem is that the amendments are interlinked. If we pass amendments that allow the national identity card to be used for facilitating purposes, are we setting ourselves up to take the second set of amendments that go beyond what the hon. Gentleman himself wants? We have a procedural problem. The arguments against the second identifier are powerful and link back to us passing the initial amendments. Those are my two major concerns.

Lady Hermon (North Down): I welcome you to the Chair, Mr Hood. I should have done so earlier, but such is my feeling of guilt about Thursday that I overlooked it. I am delighted to see you here today.

I will add only a few observations as we begin the debate on national insurance numbers. I am sorry if it is legalistic but the recent decision in the Heathrow airport case reminds me that the span of our rights under the European convention on human rights is more or less open-ended. No one can predict whether people are entitled to a good night's sleep when they live near an airport—an issue that will be debated again.

My starting point is the Government's obligations under the Human Rights Act 1998. Article 3 of part II of the first protocol states:

    ``The High Contracting Parties undertake free elections at reasonable intervals by secret ballot, under conditions which will ensure the free expression of the opinion of the people in the choice of the legislation.''

The most important words are

    ``under conditions which will ensure the free expression of the opinion of the people''.

I agree with the Minister's introductory point that no one wants to place unnecessary obstacles in the way of voters. We genuinely want to help them to cast their votes. However, electoral fraud is a serious problem in Northern Ireland and we all need to act together to eradicate the distortion of electoral results.

11.45 am

I recall apologising on Second Reading for appearing to be cynical, but hon. Members will notice that clause 1 contains a loophole whereby the chief electoral officer for Northern Ireland may dispense with the requirement to append a signature on the annual canvass if he is satisfied that there is incapacity or the voter is unable to read. People are sent the annual application forms for the annual register in good time, so even though details of our national insurance number are not at our fingertips all the time, there is an adequate period after the delivery of the canvass to households for people to check their national insurance number. Clause 1 contains a loophole whereby those who cannot sign are not obliged to provide even their national insurance number. Surely a logical requirement should be built in to close that particular loophole.

Many young people—I am staggered by the number—know their national insurance number. People who claim benefits—old age pensioners, for example—also have easy access to their national insurance number, so why should it not apply to those who want to obtain their rightful vote? Will the Committee consider closing the loophole by insisting on the requirement to provide national insurance numbers?

I do not want the Government to be taken to court following the Heathrow airport decision because conditions have not been put in place to ensure the free expression of the opinion of the people. The European Court at Strasbourg ruled that it was insufficient for the Government to ensure no breach of rights; they had a positive duty to put in place legislation or administrative procedures that guaranteed people's rights under the convention. Various members of the Committee support that positive move and the Minister could easily accept it.

Mr. Andrew Turner: There is an air of confidentiality on the Government Benches and I am unclear about the precise objection of the Minister and his hon. Friends to the proposals of my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, East. It is difficult to establish the Minister's intentions and those of the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes). What precisely do they object to and what has changed their minds since they signed up to the Select Committee report? As the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) said, a serious matter must have changed over the period and persuaded them that what seemed a sensible proposal is no longer sensible. I should have liked to hear more from Government Members, so that we had an opportunity to respond rather than to speak first and hear the Minister respond later, although I accept that that is a procedural matter that we cannot shift.

My hon. Friend the Member for Reigate spoke about the possibility of a future referendum on the status of Northern Ireland. Even more likely in the near future is a referendum on the status of the United Kingdom. I should not like that referendum to be affected by multiple registrations in one province of the United Kingdom either.

Mr. Browne: It is an interesting point. Will the hon. Gentleman now advance the argument that all voters throughout the United Kingdom should be required to give their national insurance numbers, so that if we have a referendum on the euro, there will be a similar degree of certainty about that register?

Mr. Turner: I intended to deal with that issue slightly later. There was multiple registration in my constituency at the last general election, which may be why it was the last constituency to declare a result in England, Wales and Scotland. The difference is that those who may be responsible for multiple registration on the Isle of Wight do not carry guns. Liberal Democrats on the Isle of Wight do not carry guns, as far as I know, and nor do Conservatives and representatives of other parties. As the hon. Member for South Down implied, however, those who are responsible for multiple registration in Northern Ireland do carry guns—[Interruption.]

The Chairman: Order. I hope that I will stop hearing a conversation among those on the Government Benches.

Mr. Turner: Thank you, Mr. Hood.

The nub of the matter is that multiple registration by extremists drives politics into the hands of extremists—it has happened in one province of the United Kingdom—and we have a duty to take every possible and reasonable measure to prevent that. I have heard no reason from Government Members as to why the proposal is unreasonable.

Northern Ireland is the only part of the United Kingdom that for many elections, although not all, has proportional voting, which is even more vulnerable to the effects of multiple registration than the first-past-the-post system. Again, we have a duty but I have heard nothing to explain why it is not possible to put the perfectly sensible proposal from the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee into law.

Mr. McGrady: Almost as an aside, the hon. Gentleman said that the proportional representation method of voting was more prone to electoral fraud than the straightforward first-past-the-post system. I have not experienced that. Of four categories of election in Northern Ireland, three are by proportional representation. We have a direct first-past-the-post system, or whatever it is officially called, only for election to this House. Has he any evidence for his remark that PR is more prone to fraud than direct election?

Mr. Turner: The argument of proponents of PR is that every vote counts. Therefore, if someone has two, three or even four votes, each will count four times. In a constituency such as that of my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate, it is harder to say that every vote counts.

Mr. Peter Robinson: Everyone has only one vote, whether it is a PR election or a first-past-the-post election, but they can use that one vote in preferential terms. The strength of the argument comes more from the outcome of an election. A PR election's outcome can be more easily affected by fraud than that of a first-past-the-post election, because a fraction of one vote would be sufficient to decide between two candidates at later stages of the poll.

Mr. Turner: The hon. Gentleman has explained the argument much more clearly than I have.

Mr. Barnes: It is interesting that we are discussing multiple registration and are linking in the national insurance number provision. We need another set of amendments to deal with multiple registration. Even if national insurance numbers are used, it is still possible for multiple registration to occur. The hon. Gentleman is presumably proposing to set up that measure with the proviso that it will need to be added to later with other measures.

Perhaps I can answer the point on which the hon. Gentleman intervened. He quoted—

The Chairman: Order. The hon. Gentleman is himself intervening; he cannot go back to an earlier contribution.

Mr. Turner: I was not proposing to revert to the point that I made in my intervention on the hon. Gentleman, but if he wishes to intervene further and respond to that point, I am happy to give way.

Mr. Barnes: Page 2 of the Bill refers to a person's entitlement to remain on a register. Part of the hon. Gentleman's point is therefore legitimate. However, numbers of people coming up for registration for the first time are not included. I imagine that anyone moving into Northern Ireland from other sections of Great Britain, from the Irish Republic, where they would be entitled to a qualification over a period, or from the Commonwealth would be liable to problems. The debate has thrown up a difficulty.

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