Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Bill

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Mr. Blunt: I have now read paragraph 2.2, and it appears to support the contention of the hon. Member for Belfast, East that the chief electoral officer was under the same illusion as to what was allowed as the rest of the population of Northern Ireland. On examination, that view turned out to be incorrect, following the 1987 statutory instrument that was mentioned. That is further evidence of the need for consolidation of legislation.

Mr. Barnes: I have read out the paragraph, which stated:

    ``A person may have more than one residence and thus may be registered at more than one address.''

What is that but legitimate multiple registration? I refer not just to the evidence of the returning officer, but to points in the report to which the hon. Member for Belfast, East put his name.

Mr. Peter Robinson: The argument was never that someone could not validly register more than once; it was that they could not vote more than once. They could not vote more than once in parliamentary assembly, local government or European elections. I draw on the passage quoted by the hon. Gentleman to aid the argument that I have advanced: the chief electoral officer says that even though it is permissible to register at more than one address,

    ``it is an offence to vote more than once...in more than one electoral area at such a local election.''

5.15 pm

Mr. Barnes: The report states:

    ``in more than one constituency at a general election or more than once in the same electoral area at a local government election or in more than one electoral area at such a local election.''

That means that it is not legitimate to vote more than once in the same local government elections. However, local government elections in different areas of Northern Ireland are not ruled out as elections where it is possible to vote more than once.

I will explain the situation in the United Kingdom. I am entitled to be registered in North-East Derbyshire, where I live, and in Lambeth, London, where I have accommodation so that I can attend Parliament. I have not registered at both places, and a dispute exists over whether I am obliged to do so. I believe that single registration should be the general principle to which we all adhere. I can legitimately vote in North-East Derbyshire district council elections and in local government elections in London, even when they are held on the same day. That situation exists across Northern Ireland. However, if I had two registrations in North-East Derbyshire because I had two homes there, I would be allowed to vote only once. That is the case in Britain, including Northern Ireland, and it is known to the chief electoral officer in Northern Ireland.

The situation was clearly understood by the Select Committee. Its report stated on page xi, paragraph 24:

    ``The doubt over the accuracy of the Register raises the question whether multiple registration should continue as a right.''

That right is being challenged by the hon. Member for Belfast, East. It should have been understood by everybody who put their name to the report that multiple registration not only took place in Northern Ireland, but was allowed to operate in certain circumstances. The argument against multiple registration was that

    ``it is desirable to make the electoral process within the United Kingdom as uniform as possible - the right to register in more than one place exists throughout the country.''

That is the position that I adhere to, and that was adhered to by the Select Committee, but I believe that multiple registration should not take place and is problematic.

I want to take action on a United Kingdom basis, not only in Northern Ireland. A procedure could be included in electoral law to cover the matter. A bad piece of legislation, the Local Government Finance Act 1988, introduced the poll tax. Under that, a person could register to pay his main poll tax payment for his sole or main place of residence. If that could be done for electoral law generally, it would be possible to allow only one electoral registration for the sole or main place of residence. The rolling register is allowed to roll quicker in England than in Northern Ireland, owing to extra problems there. It is possible for people to move from one area to another and back again

The question of students was raised. Students can be registered in one area and at the same time be registered in another. However, that is a much wider consideration than can be dealt with in terms of multiple registration. In any case, the chief electoral officer said that it was not a major problem in terms of the fraudulent use of votes in Northern Ireland. It is much more to do with another item that we are due to discuss, which relates to the issuing of the marked register.

Mr. McGrady: The debates on the two issues of multiple registration and multiple voting have become unduly complex. I remember expending quite a bit of energy in my younger days on the streets of Northern Ireland trying to achieve one man, one vote, which would now of course be one person, one vote, as time moves on. There has been much reference to and quotation of chief electoral officers and Select Committees. All of those pronouncements are simply expressions of opinion, unless those consulted were asked for a definitive legal interpretation. However, let me assure the Committee that on many occasions when I asked for definitive legal interpretations of the law on voting and registration, I did not get a correct answer from the then chief electoral officer. Consequently, I have no great confidence that the chief electoral office is the origin of all authority. In fact, at the last election, I was given grossly wrong information by the chief electoral officer. I had to challenge him, and he had to admit that he was wrong, so I have no problem with contradicting what has been said in the past by anybody.

I also have no problem with adapting my attitudes to new facts and new times, which is what I think the Committee is about. The basic principle—it is common currency in Northern Ireland at the moment—is equality of esteem, which means that every person is equal before the law, whether it is the criminal law or the law on voting or registration. That leads on to the principle that must always be pursued—one person, one vote. Irrespective of a person's wealth, irrespective of where they reside or their station in life, we must treat all our citizens with the best equality that human endeavour can achieve. I have appended my name to amendment No. 9 to try to eradicate that element of multiple voting and penalise people quite severely for committing the illegal act of multiple voting. I have no problem with that whatsoever. I am quite prepared to support it.

Our debates show that multiple registration is a slightly more difficult issue, but on principle a person should register to vote only in one place. If an elector is qualified to register in more than one place, they should choose where they want to vote. As we have heard, and as I know from practice, there are circumstances where an elector can register for good and equal reasons in different electoral divisions, be they local government, parliamentary or European.

I pointed out some time ago—not in relation to this legislation or my amendment to it—that a person should have a space in which to indicate that they are registering at two different addresses, so that that is clearly brought to the attention of the electoral office. There should be a penalty for not providing that information. In addition, quite a simple administrative arrangement can be made, whereby a person who has dual registration must suggest before a given time of the election the address of registration that he or she wants to exercise, thereby negating his or her alternative option. It would be fairly simple and straightforward for the electoral office to administer that work. On that basic principle of parity of esteem and equality of citizenship—one person, one vote—I will support the amendment.

Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight): I rise to support new clause 8, which was tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate, and amendment No. 9, which was tabled by the hon. Member for Belfast, East. However, I have some concerns about amendment No. 8. The first of them—whether it refers to one parliamentary constituency in Northern Ireland or in the United Kingdom—may be less important than the others, but it needs to be clarified.

I am sure that we all frequently grapple with the law on registration in our political lives, and it sometimes seems absurd to the layman. However, it is perfectly legal for someone to vote in two parliamentary by-elections held on the same day. As I understand matters, in Great Britain—certainly in England—it is possible for people to vote in two different local authorities in local government elections held on the same day. I am a little confused as to whether a local government area in Northern Ireland means a local authority or what we call a ward or county division.

It is clear that it is not possible in England for someone to vote twice in an election for one district, and amendment No. 9 would make that unlawful if not impossible in Northern Ireland. People can vote in elections for two different districts held on the same day, but cannot vote twice in an election for one district. Similarly, amendment No. 9 makes it unlawful for people to vote twice in a parliamentary general election, but not for them to vote in two parliamentary by-elections held on the same day.

It is tempting to head towards a ban on multiple registration altogether. It benefits some groups in the community unfairly, such as those fortunate enough to be able to afford a second home and to live in it as much as they live in the first. We are among those who benefit from that. It benefits students, who can register at home and at their place of study. It may be argued to disbenefit certain politicians in areas with high student populations or high numbers of holiday homes.

It is difficult, however, to say that multiple registration is wrong in Northern Ireland when it is permissible in Great Britain. The hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire suggested that it should be unlawful in Great Britain. That is another matter and requires another measure on another day. I support the Minister's view that we cannot have different qualifications for voting in different parts of the UK, which is why I find it hard to support amendment No. 8.

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