Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Bill

[back to previous text]

Mr. Browne: We should continue to prohibit the dissemination of information out of the polling station. For those reasons—I may cover this in more detail—I do not favour new clause 7 in any guise.

Mr. Blunt: I understand that the Minister wants to keep the prohibition, but it does not work: the information is going out of the polling stations, in particular, to parties that are sufficiently well-funded and organised to get it out.

Mr. Browne: I am at one with the hon. Members for Belfast, East and for South Down to the extent that I believe that it is better to interdict such behaviour inside the polling station, where there is some prospect of it being policed—it may be imperfectly policed at certain polling stations; I shall come to that in a moment—rather than giving information to the parties. If parties behave on individual doorsteps on polling day in the way that the hon. Member for South Down claims, I suspect that there is no prospect of policing such behaviour. However, there is a prospect of our protecting that information within the polling station.

The hon. Member for Belfast, East and I disagree on whether we need to outlaw the provision of information to polling agents by polling clerks and providing officers. I do not think that there is any disagreement between the position adopted by me as a Minister and others on whether party representatives—polling agents, agents or candidates—should be entitled to go inside polling stations to observe how the poll is conducted. That seems a necessary part of democracy. The new clause contributes nothing new to eradicating the mischief—the transmission of information out of the polling station. It is more effective to focus the efforts of the chief electoral officer and his staff on ensuring, through the training of presiding officers and other measures, the enforcement of the existing ban.

I acknowledge the point of the hon. Member for Belfast, East that he is not thirled to the wording of the amendment. I am sure that he realises that prohibiting the provision of information to polling agents from polling clerks or presiding officers is unnecessary. From the available evidence, in the research or elsewhere, the problem does not seem to lie with election staff passing information to polling agents. The information is being obtained by polling agents recording information that is legitimately available as part of the electoral process. The passing of information from the clerk to the presiding officer or the assistant is part of the process of ensuring an open and democratic procedure. We cannot interdict that.

If we cannot stop information being passed in that way because it is necessary to ensure openness, and we cannot stop—as I believe we cannot—people who represent the parties from being in the polling stations, we need to concentrate our efforts on ensuring that they do not breach the law by passing that information out of the polling station. Although this might be a little out of order, new clause 7 is highly inadvisable against that objective, unless we get rid of the prohibition altogether, which I am not persuaded to do. New clause 7 would only encourage the flouting of the prohibition, but I recognise that the new clause was intended to be probing.

As the hon. Member for Reigate pointed out, new clause 3 would mean that Northern Ireland procedure would run contrary to the position of the rest of the United Kingdom. I have already expressed how reluctant I am to do that, although I am persuaded to in certain circumstances. I am not convinced that political parties should be denied the information of the mapped register at the end of the poll. It is information that I, and I suspect other hon. Members, have used and, although my use of it in the west of Scotland does not translate to it having to be used in Northern Ireland, I have not been persuaded that there should be regional differences. I use it to identify people who said during canvassing that they will vote for me or for my party and to find out whether they have voted and whether there were any problems. In doing that, I use it in the same way as many other hon. Members have done, do and would like to continue to do. It is entirely legitimate.

The provision of the marked register, which is the true record of the number of people who voted, is necessary also so that parties can, if they wish to, assure themselves that the poll was conducted in a proper manner. To remove that right would be draconian. However, it is the Government's obligation that, as far as possible, it interdicts the transfer of the information available in the polling station to outside to be used for the purposes mentioned by the hon. Member for South Down (Mr. McGrady) or for other purposes. I can tell that I have not persuaded the hon. Member for Belfast, East, but for the reasons I have mentioned I hope that the new clauses will be withdrawn.

Mr. Barnes: I am unhappy about the general availability of marked registers. It is not healthy for political parties or Members of Parliament to have access to marked registers and know whether constituents they deal with voted or not. Although the Minister has mentioned arguments in favour of the marked register being available, it is a problem. There is also a difficulty with new clause 3 because it would mean that a marked register would not be made available in Northern Ireland, despite being available in Great Britain.

There are special reasons for arguing that the marked register should not be supplied in Northern Ireland, and my hon. Friend the Member for South Down mentioned cases of intimidation. The Select Committee's view, which unlike the laws of Medes and Persians can be moved away from by its members, was that

    ``local knowledge and use of the marked-up Registers for previous elections . . . show the names of those who did not vote. The votes of such people can easily be stolen without trace.''

There is difficulty in getting evidence of what takes place in Northern Ireland elections, but I have the impression that marked registers are widely used to discover who seldom or never votes. That is when personation can take place. On the other hand, the Bill will begin to tackle that problem of fraudulent vote because a photo identity card will be required.

6.30 pm

The Select Committee did not go as far as recommending the non-availability of marked registers, but it asked the chief electoral officer to keep a close eye on the matter for the next five years and to report back on any problems. Northern Ireland has the extra problem of needing marked registers in certain circumstances because it is more likely that an electoral petition will emerge from Northern Ireland when the parties examine the details and find out that numbers of people have voted who are not entitled to. However, if the Bill is successful, it will remove that need. There are arguments for and against marked registers, and my disposition is to be unhappy about their provision generally throughout Great Britain, but I do not think that there are sufficient problems, given the new legislation, that require that they be removed from Northern Ireland.

I recommend the Home Office to consider seriously whether marked registers assist the operation of the democratic process. Certainly, our constituents would be aghast if they knew that marked registers were available. They would find it an intrusion into their civil liberties if the political parties could know, precisely and officially, who had voted and who had not. If people thought that that was the case, the view about intimidation that was referred to by the hon. Member for South Down would be held more widely, because they would think that if it were possible to know which people had voted it would also be possible to know whom those people has voted for. That misperception among people is a danger that should concern us.

Mr. Robinson: Had I been wording new clause 7 today, I might, having listened to the Minister, have framed it differently. His point about information being available to the signed-in and valid representatives of political parties in a polling station is sound. For example, a polling agent might ask the presiding officer whether a person had said that they were Joe McDonald—or whatever the name might be—to determine whether personation had taken place. I can see circumstances in which it would be appropriate for them to have that information. I also recognise, as the Minister commented, that it is important that such information should not be disseminated beyond the polling station.

If I were drawing up a new clause today, I would concentrate on the recording of that information. I have to ask the Committee, as I ask myself, what is the legitimate use of such information? If a mischief is being caused by it, we should make it an offence if no legitimate benefit can be derived from it. I cannot see that people within a polling station recording in their own register who has or who has not voted has any beneficial effect for the electoral process, nor is there any legitimate reason why they should have that information. Certainly there is no legitimate reason if marked registers are available to them after the election. If a representative from the Labour party with a red rosette knocked on my door and said, ``Mr. Robinson, you have not voted yet'' I may act differently from the way I would act if a couple of burly Sinn Feiners came to my door and informed me that they had knowledge that I had not been to the polls yet. The circumstances change the position.

Mr. Barnes: Unfortunately, it could not be a member of the Labour party in Northern Ireland as the rules of the Labour party do not allow it. It is the only place in the world where a person could not be a member of the Labour party, which some of us think should change.

Shona McIsaac (Cleethorpes): Afghanistan?

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