Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Bill

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Mr. Browne: I should point out at the outset that, as I understand it, the effects of both amendment No. 19 and new clause 5 are the same—to require all potential voters to provide a signature to check against the one supplied at registration. Until now, I had firmly believed that there was total consensus on the view that photographic identification would be the biggest deterrent to personation in the polling stations. A serious breach in that consensus might be worrying. However, until now, nobody has seriously argued in any documents that I have read or in any conversations or discussions in which I have taken part that we should add a requirement for a signature. The view was that if everyone who presents themselves to vote at a polling station provides secure photographic identification, that would be the best deterrent to personation.

5.30 pm

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Belfast, East for drawing attention to the electoral research project, conducted by the Northern Ireland Office, into the combined elections that took place on 7 June 2001. I am sorry that I was not able to provide the results of that research and evaluation earlier to members of the Committee. As it is, the order was accelerated to make the report available, and I am grateful to research and evaluation services for agreeing to do that. I, too, have had limited opportunity—only 24 hours or so more than members of the Committee—to digest it.

The report is full of helpful information. It clearly identifies some of the problems that the hon. Member for Belfast, East mentioned. I have significant sympathy for his view, although it is not the law, that people who are queuing to vote at the polling station before 10 o'clock are not at fault if the system cannot cope and get them through before 10 o'clock. It is the Government's duty to provide sufficient resources to ensure that that does not happen. It is difficult to criticise people who present themselves before the poll closes but are then denied their vote. I agree that the criticism ought to be of the system.

The Northern Ireland Office and the chief electoral officer will take other practical lessons on board in respect of deployment of resources to ensure that the minimum number of difficulties are put in the way of those who wish to vote in future elections. I give that assurance as the Minister.

I resist the amendments because I do not want to add to those burdens and for some of the reasons articulated by the hon. Member for Belfast, East. In my view, the amendments would create unnecessary difficulties for the elector and would undoubtedly impede the smooth running of the poll. I have spoken repeatedly about the need to ensure that, in preventing fraud, we do not set up too many hurdles for the voter. Otherwise, the simple fact is that people will be prevented from exercising their right to vote.

The amendments would considerably slow down the voting process, because election staff would have to check signatures as well as identity documents. Furthermore, there would inevitably be differences of opinion about whether the signature was true. A photograph is clear proof of identity, but a signature might not be. I can envisage confrontation between individual voters and election staff if there is disagreement about whether the signatures match. Such confrontation would be unnecessary, given the level and nature of identification that will be required of voters.

Mr. Blunt: It was certainly not my intention that there should be an immediate check of the signature given by the elector against the signature held electronically on the register or physically on paper. That comparison would not be possible—I doubt that the information would be available in the polling station. However, voters would know that their signature had been recorded and that the chief electoral officer would be able to make a comparison subsequently. The time required would simply be a question of how long it took the elector to sign a piece of paper that was pushed across to him or her.

Mr. Browne: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making that distinction. However, it seems to me that the purpose of any checks on identity made in the polling station should be to deter people from seeking to impersonate others and to steal other people's votes. Therefore, while it may be of advantage to have a retrospective check in certain circumstances, if that is what it is to be used for, we might add greatly to the burden on those who have to work at the polls and administer them for us. We will have to take the time to identify and map those that we want to go back and check. In any event, I am satisfied—and, up until now, it appeared to me that there was a consensus—that the true deterrent to personation would be the secure photographic identification document.

The requirement for a signature, if it is only for retrospective checking or if it is a precondition that it should be checked against the signature held in the register before a ballot paper can be issued, will slow down the poll and generate potential for unnecessary confrontation between those who are working at the poll and voters. It will not add significantly to our ability to deter people from personation or our ability to check identities. Under our proposals, individuals will have to produce photographic identification, and the presiding officer will be able to put a new statutory question in cases of doubt in order to confirm date of birth. It would be an unnecessary extra burden on voters to ask them to provide a signature before being issued with a ballot paper. The measures that we propose will be effective in their own right in preventing fraud. That has been the unanimous view until now.

On the specific point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for South Down about our intention in relation to signatures, it will be clear from my contribution that the Government do not intend to extend the checking of signatures to help identify those in polling stations who put their eggs in the basket of photographic identification. However, given a register that has signatures, dates of birth and photographs, if it becomes necessary in the future, which we do not believe that it will, the resource will be there. Currently, however, the signatures will be used to check absent votes, and the identity of those applying for them. Photographic identification will be the way in which we will identify voters in polling stations. I hope that those words of reassurance will persuade the hon. Gentleman to withdraw the amendment.

Lembit Öpik: Before the hon. Member for South Down summates, I want to ask him how the information would be used, which is a concern to which the Minister alluded. If the information is to be used retrospectively, it would be of limited benefit in terms of the outcome of an election. I say that because, unless one is willing to fish out the offending votes after they have all been counted and alter the outcome of the election, it might provide evidence of fraud but it would not necessarily help us to right that wrong when it really matters—during the election.

Mr. McGrady rose—

Mr. Blunt rose—

The Chairman: The hon. Member for Reigate should make up his mind.

Mr. Blunt: On the assumption that if I allowed you to pass over me, Mr. Hood, I might not be called after the hon. Member for South Down has spoken, I shall make my points, and he will be able to pick up the bits that I have left behind.

The information will not, of course, immediately confirm a signature on the day of an election, because the polling staff will not be in a position to make those checks. However, it would have the effect of being almost a complete deterrent. If one knew that a permanent record of one's signature could be tested against that, the authorities could go back and check that the signatures match.

Mr. Browne: It is important for the hon. Gentleman to address the circumstances in which he thinks that the deterrent would work. It would have to deter somebody who had gone to the trouble of getting a forged passport, a forged driving licence, a forged Translink card and made him or herself look over 65 to justify that or, alternatively, a forged electoral identity card. I do not know if the hon. Gentleman is seriously trying to persuade the Committee that a person who would go to all that trouble would baulk at putting a signature on a piece of paper. If he thinks that they would, it may be a deterrent but, frankly, I do not think that it is.

Mr. Blunt: If the Minister had been able to restrain himself, it would have become clear that I do not intend to press the matter to a Division.

If a person is able to get away with the issue of photographic identification, one assumes that the polling staff would be able to make a careful check. However, people were able to walk into the Ministry of Defence, during my time as a special adviser there, with a Crystal Palace supporter's card rather than the necessary identification. Therefore, occasions when people may use incorrect identification to get into places where they should not show that polling staff, who may be under great pressure with a large queue of people outside, may not be able to hold the card up to the light and ensure that the voter is the person shown on the card. Of course, once that test is gone, it is gone. It cannot be brought back and checked later. That would be the benefit of a signature test.

Lembit Öpik: There is an even more profound difficulty than that outlined by the Minister. If it can be proved after an election that a person has claimed to be somebody other than who they are, they are unlikely to have left their real address so that the police can apprehend them. In fact, there is no way to trace the cheat in the first place.

Mr. Blunt: The point at issue is that at an election such as that in Fermanagh and South Tyrone, which was decided by 53 votes, or in any election that has the potential to be decided by one or two votes anywhere or in the event of an accusation of widespread fraud, the proposal would provide a way of returning to the record and saying that in the course of the election a number of people voted who should not have done. The courts would then decide whether, on the basis of the evidence, the election should stand or another election should be called. In such circumstances, the result would be addressed.

I listened to the Minister and I take on board his assurance that we should rely on photographic evidence in the first instance and hope that that works. He said that if it becomes necessary to use signatures, they are on the registration forms and could be an issue that the Government would address. I am happy to rest on that assurance.

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