Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Bill

[back to previous text]

The Chairman: Order. I wonder whether the Whip could help the hon. Lady. Her arguments seem more suited to clause 4 stand part. Perhaps she could draw her remarks more closely to the amendment before us.

Ms Munn: I am grateful for your advice, Mr. Amess. No doubt someone will explain to me later where I am going wrong on this. Basically I support the Government position, which is that we should move to identity cards—sorry, I do not mean identity cards. I am getting flustered here. I believe that we should move to the position where everyone has some form of photographic ID, but we should allow time for people to arrange that.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire): I find one of the provisions in new clause 1 rather vague and perhaps the hon. Members who tabled it will explain. It refers to a card that is a ``counterpart'' of a driving licence. How wide is that counterpart to be? Could the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) use his House of Commons photo pass to get into the polling station? Should not the new clause have a much more specific list?

I recognise the extension to senior citizens' concessionary fare passes as an advance. I do not have a driving licence, although I have a passport, which I could use in Northern Ireland. If I did not have that I could qualify for a concessionary fare pass, as I am over 65. I certainly could get a bus pass in Derbyshire and I often take buses. However, I do not do so as I do not think that my constituents would take too kindly to their MP getting concessionary bus fares. Perhaps I should insist on my rights.

Some people would be covered by this provision who are not covered by the measures that the Government have introduced. I am surprised that the amendment does not go much further. Earlier the hon. Member for Belfast, East had great fun at the expense of a number of Labour Members when he said that the provisions in the report of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee went much further than this. He, the Minister and I were all members of that Committee and there are two other members present. The report argued for a photographic voter identity card for everyone who was exercising their franchise.

I should like to take this opportunity to appeal to the Minister to consider that point of view and to think about introducing a measure on Report that would cover it. It would then mean that the list comprising passports, driving licences, counterparts of driving licences, whatever they may be, and senior citizens' concessionary fare passes would be superseded by the provision requiring people to have photographic identity cards.

It was said on Second Reading that up to a third or a half of the electorate in Northern Ireland would have to pick up a card. I grant that if the amendment were carried, the third to a half element would shrink somewhat, but at least 25 per cent. would be second-class citizens and have to pick up the photo identity card to exercise their franchise rights. Why should those who happen to have passports, driving licences, counterparts of driving licences or concessionary fare passes be privileged while the others are expected to come out to roving vans-however the system will operate-to claim their franchise rights? If everyone had to do it, it is much more likely that even that 25 per cent. would pick it up fully and properly.

The amendment is flawed because of the counterpart element. We should go beyond that. I do not support the amendment simply to extend the list. I ask the Minister to try to go beyond the proposal at some stage to subsume the current difficulty.

Mr. Salter: Does my hon. Friend agree that there is a further argument that has not perhaps been tested in respect of the clause and others in the Bill? A golden rule for any electoral system is that it should be simple, straightforward and easy to understand. If there are four or five ways of qualifying for the franchise, is there not a danger that we will deter people from exercising their right to vote?

Mr. Barnes: It is a very complicated arrangement. Unlike in Great Britain, people in Northern Ireland are used to turning up at polling stations and having to produce a form of identification. People are clear that that needs to be done. But we would be replacing a system that allowed the use of different documents, which we have heard could be forged. People must get used to the idea that they need to pick up something from a different list. It would be much easier to move and transfer things into new areas if one clear and distinct provision could be publicised on television at the time of the election. It would avoid the complexities that the Bill has got us into, which are being added to by the hon. Member for Belfast, East. We should be careful about going down this road.

There is a system that I hope we will move towards introducing. We cannot do anything about it in this Committee, but it would tackle the problem of electoral registration, giving us registers that were as full as possible, and would be an entire check on fraud in general elections. That is the enabling device of identity cards. They could only be introduced throughout the United Kingdom. We could not just have a special identity card for Northern Ireland. I hope that that measure will be taken into account.

Lembit Öpik: Before the hon. Gentleman finishes, am I to understand that despite everything that he has said on the Floor of the House about the importance of making specific progress, he is not in favour of setting an 18-month time limit to introduce some of the changes with which he agrees?

Mr. Barnes: Some clear and specific measures in the Bill seem able to be handled early. If some people are expected to pick up voter identity cards, everyone could be expected to. It would be the same exercise but engaged in more broadly. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister as well as the mover of the amendment are listening.

Mr. McGrady: Perhaps I should declare a personal interest in respect of (3)(da): I am a senior citizen, despite my youthful appearance.

I have two points. First, it is reasonable to accept a senior citizen photographic identity card, which is readily available to that sector of the electorate who are likely to be flustered or upset at having to find other documents. Senior citizens on the electoral register will carry that photographic identity card with them almost every day with great ease, so I support that proposal entirely.

Secondly, in view of some comments that have been made, I should like clarification on the first part of the amendment. I do not know what the situation is here, but a Northern Ireland driving licence has two parts. There is one inset for the documentation and one for the photograph; the licence comprises both parts.

I understood that the chief electoral officer for Northern Ireland issued strict instructions to the presiding officers at elections that only the entire driving licence was acceptable as a document of proof. In practice, the situation at polling stations varied. I hope that the hon. Member for Belfast, East will clarify whether he is suggesting that only the photographic element of the driving licence be required at the polling station or whether the entire licence be required.

Mr. Browne: Let me start by reassuring my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes) about the Bill's objectives. We are seeking not to complicate current provisions but to simplify them. Current provisions on specified documents state that a voter is legally required to produce one of a number of valid specified documents at a polling station before being issued with a ballot paper.

The current list of specified documents is a current Northern Ireland or Great Britain full driving licence or a Northern Ireland provisional licence; a current passport; a current book of payment of allowances, benefits or pensions issued by the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety or the Department for Social Development in Northern Ireland; a medical card issued by the Northern Ireland Central Services Agency; a current British seaman's card; a plastic card issued by the Department of Health, the Department for Work and Pensions or the Inland Revenue, with the name and national insurance number embossed on it, interestingly; and for a woman married within two years of polling day, a certified copy of the extract of any entry issued by the registrar.

The Bill's intention is to replace all those non-photographic forms of identification with photographic identification. We are talking about a passport, a full and current driving licence—I will explain which part of the licence is acceptable later—or, for those who have neither, who, as has been pointed out, are estimated to comprise between 20 per cent. and 30 per cent. of the population, a voluntary electoral identity card provided by the Government. If that simplified system satisfies him that we are seeking both to tighten the security of the vote and present a simplified list of items to the public, I am pleased to give that reassurance.

10.15 am

There are some interesting findings about the use of identification documents in the report entitled ``The Electoral Research Project The Combined Election on 7th June 2001'', which was carried out for the Northern Ireland Office and reported in October 2001. Page 19 of the report shows that

    ``Two per cent. of those who had not voted (five respondents) were refused a ballot paper at the polling station.''

That could be a significant number of people.

    ``In four of these cases, the reason for refusal was because they did not present the correct identification. The other respondent said nothing other than that he/she had to queue for 15 minutes and was then refused a ballot paper.''

She did not say whether the 15 minutes was after 10 o'clock.

In paragraph 3.5.2 on page 53, findings based on interviews with presiding officers who had worked at the polling stations demonstrate the degree of confusion among electors in Northern Ireland about the required identification. The report says that

    ``some 50 per cent. of respondents (462) confirmed that potential voters presented workplace passes as a form of identification which was not on the list of specified documents. Other types of inappropriate ID included: travel passes, student cards and gun licences. Other forms of inappropriate documentation included: bank/credit cards; only one part of the driving licence; birth certificates; taxi/HGV licences; old medical cards; and unemployment signing documents.''

Previous Contents Continue

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries ordering index

©Parliamentary copyright 2001
Prepared 18 October 2001