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Delegated Legislation Committee Debates

Draft Representation of the People (Northern Ireland) (Variation of Specified Documents) Regulations 2003

Fifth Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation

Thursday 27 March 2003

[Mr. Bill O'Brien in the Chair]

Draft Representation of the People (Northern Ireland) (Variation of Specified Documents) Regulations 2003

8.55 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Desmond Browne): I beg to move,

    That the Committee has considered the draft Representation of the People (Northern Ireland) (Variation of Specified Documents) Regulations 2003.

I welcome you to the Chair on this fine morning, Mr. O'Brien. As the Committee knows, the Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Act 2002, which introduced measures to minimise the opportunity for electoral fraud and protected the right of individuals to exercise their franchise, was subject to extensive consultation and debate. That debate involved the House, the Northern Ireland parties, the Electoral Office for Northern Ireland, the Electoral Commission and the electorate.

The regulations remove all non-photographic identification from the rules that govern parliamentary and Assembly elections in Northern Ireland. They follow on from the 2002 Act, which introduced the electoral identity card to Northern Ireland.

Mr. John Taylor (Solihull): The Minister said that the measures would exclude all non-photographic documentation. May I assume that only photographic documentation will be left? Is the Minister concentrating on documents with photographic images and dismissing other documents?

Mr. Browne: I thank the hon. Gentleman for getting to the nub of the issue. The purpose of removing all non-photographic identification documents from use in either parliamentary or Assembly elections in Northern Ireland is to create an environment in which only photographic identification documents will be used. I shall come to the details shortly.

The regulations are compatible with the European convention on human rights and are being made under the powers in section 201(1) and (3) and rule 37(1E) of schedule 1 to the Representation of the People Act 1983. Specifically, the regulations amend paragraph 1E of rule 37 of the parliamentary elections rules set out in schedule 1 to the 1983 Act.

Lady Hermon (North Down): I, too, welcome you to the Chair, Mr. O'Brien. I am grateful to the Minister for giving way for a second time in his short introductory remarks, which we hope will lengthen as we intervene on him.

Will the Minister reflect on his reference to the compatibility of the regulations with the European

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convention on human rights? He will know that there is an obligation on the United Kingdom to put in place measures to ensure free elections. Could he elaborate on the measures that have been taken to ensure that the genuine voters of Northern Ireland will not be disfranchised? That is particularly relevant as the Assembly elections have now been set for 29 May.

Mr. Browne: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her intervention. If she will bear with me I will, in some detail—my remarks were intended to be short, but that has now become a comparative term—deal with the arrangements that have been put in place and their recent revision. As the hon. Lady knows, in seeking to protect the integrity of the poll in Northern Ireland, the Government have, over several years, closely consulted the parties and people of Northern Ireland. The provisions are part of a package of measures that were substantially agreed to in Northern Ireland as confidence-building measures for the electoral system. There is recognition that the provisions are somewhat radical and that they generate concerns, which must be addressed. Our principal concern is that we do not accidentally disenfranchise honest voters.

As I said, the purpose of the amendments is to remove all non-photographic forms of identity documents from the list of specified documents set out in paragraph (1E) of the parliamentary election rules to which I referred. Rule 37 (1A) of those rules stipulates that a ballot paper shall not be handed to a potential voter unless he or she has produced one of the specified documents to the presiding officer or clerk.

In response to the hon. Member for Solihull (Mr. Taylor), I remind the Committee of the four specified documents that will be accepted once the regulations are in force: a European Union member state passport, which has a photograph and is a secure document; a Great Britain or Northern Ireland driving licence, which is also a secure document; a senior Smartpass, which is a concessionary fare card issued under the Northern Ireland concessionary fare scheme; and, the electoral identity card. The Government are aware that concerns have been raised recently by people who think that we should wait until after the forthcoming Assembly election before enacting the regulations. They believe that removing non-photographic identification at this time risks disenfranchising a large number of eligible voters. In support, they cite the comparatively small uptake of electoral identity cards.

As part of the electoral registration process, voters were asked on the electoral registration form whether they required the electoral identity card. It was a straightforward, simple question:

    ''Voters will be required to produce specified photographic ID . . . from May 2003. If you do not possess the specified photographic ID and will require an electoral identity card which will be issued free of charge, please tick this box.''

That simple question made reference to a note that accompanied the form and it was designed to ensure that the maximum number of people who thought that they would need a card would tick the box. More than 235,000 people in Northern Ireland—about 25 per

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cent. of those now registered to vote—ticked the box indicating that they wanted identification. At the end of December, the electoral office wrote to all those people with details of how to apply for the card, which included an application form. I have a copy of that form, which, of course, was more detailed than the original question on the electoral registration form. The system was designed to ensure that the maximum number of people ticked the box and were given the specific details of, among other things, which other photographic identification would be acceptable.

Lady Hermon: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Browne: I wonder whether the hon. Lady could be patient so that I can complete this part of what I have to say. I shall give all the information about what has happened and Committee members can explore it later.

The electoral office wrote to all the people who ticked the box. There are two ways to apply for an electoral identity card: in person, at various fixed and mobile centres throughout Northern Ireland, or by post. The electoral office is responsible for ensuring that all those who require a card are issued with one, but the production of the card has been contracted out to a private firm.

As a result of the availability of fixed and mobile centres throughout Northern Ireland, and the correspondence that was sent from the electoral office, there were more than 56,000 applications for the card and a little more than 40,000 of those were made by post. As of 23 March, 23,000 cards had been dispatched to applicants. I am assured that by the end of next week all the applications will be processed and the cards will be issued to those who applied in any way that conformed to the regulations.

More than 6,000 applications were rejected because they included poor photographs, forms incorrectly completed, or personal identifiers that did not match identifiers on the electoral register—those applications are being followed up. Committee members will understand that following up the rejected applications is taking more time than processing the proper applications.

The perceived problems are as follows. First, less than a quarter of those who ticked the box on the electoral registration form have applied for a card. Secondly, there was some suggestion that the rate of production of the cards was slower than people expected. However, the important thing about the rate of production is that the cards are in people's hands in good time for them to vote, not that they are produced within a certain number of days of the application form being returned. The firm producing the cards has assured us that those could, if necessary, be turned around in seven days. Thirdly, there was a high rate of rejected applications, about which the general public in Northern Ireland did not know until today. That problem is being dealt with.

In addition to the process that I have set out, the Electoral Commission has been working, and expending a disproportionate amount of its budget, in Northern Ireland. It has been running a high-profile publicity campaign, including television and the local

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press, reminding voters that they require photographic identification to be able to vote in May. A helpline is up and running, which explains how people can get the electoral identity. That campaign has not yet concluded. It is intended that there shall be further advertising and the Electoral Commission, representatives of which I met recently, intends to hold other public relations events to ensure that the voters of Northern Ireland know what is expected of them.

There are fixed application centres in Belfast and the city of Derry and mobile application centres have been set up in 115 venues in 79 cities, towns and villages all over Northern Ireland, including many housing estates in Belfast and the city of Derry. There have been 237 team days in those mobile centres, which makes the opportunity available to people—

Lady Hermon: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Browne: If the hon. Lady will contain herself, I will talk not only about what has been done, but about what we intend to do to build on that. Perhaps it would be more appropriate to take questions after that.

On the low take-up of the card compared with the number of people who ticked a box on the electoral registration form, some work was done to try to establish how many people in Northern Ireland had another form of photographic identification. That was difficult because the information was not contained in a readily accessible form. Work has been done to try to establish how many people need the card, over and above those who ticked the box. Figures have been collated on the number of adults in Northern Ireland with driving licences, passports and Translink cards: 950,000 people have a Northern Ireland driving licence, for which one has to be 17 and over; 154,000 people qualify for the concessionary fare for Translink cards, comprising overwhelmingly the elderly population of Northern Ireland; and, 150,000 Irish passports have been issued in Northern Ireland. Although there are no separate statistics for passports in Northern Ireland, 75 per cent. of the population of the United Kingdom have a UK passport and there is no reason to believe that proportionately fewer people in Northern Ireland would have one.

It is impossible to say with certainty that those figures support the argument that fewer than 235,000 people need the card, but the balance of probability suggests that it is right. Of course, those who have Translink cards or Irish and UK passports may also have driving licences. Even so, fewer than the 235,000 who registered would need the card.

All of this work has been done because the Government recognise that they have a responsibility not to take away accidentally a person's democratic right to vote. We would not be introducing this measure if we believed that it would prevent thousands of voters from being able to vote. As a Government, we should do everything in our power to ensure that everyone who requires a card receives it in time.

To ensure that everything that can be done is being done, the Secretary of State and I met the chief

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electoral officer and the Electoral Commission earlier this week to agree a further co-ordinated strategy to ensure that those who need the card have every opportunity to get one. As a result of that meeting, we are introducing further measures that we believe will increase confidence in the card. The measures will increase opportunities to obtain cards and help inform the Government about the reasons for a large number of people indicating that they needed a card and not subsequently applying for one. The measures include writing again to the estimated 180,000 people who originally expressed an interest in a card but did not present a completed application form. A new application form will be sent to all those people in good time to enable them to have a card for the election.

In Northern Ireland, we have the advantage of strong information technology back-up for the process. It allows the electoral office to issue bar codes on individual forms to individually registered voters so that they can be electronically processed. We can ensure with certainty that, if people return the new application forms, they will be processed in time for the election.

In addition, the Electoral Commission has agreed to conduct research using a representative sample of the Northern Ireland population to determine whether people ticked the box on the registration form requesting an application for an electoral identity card. If they did, but did not subsequently apply for a card, they will be asked why and whether they have other eligible identification. By taking a statistically accurate representative sample, we will be able to ascertain whether the evidence suggesting that more people than needed the forms ticked the box is correct.

We also intend to take the mobile application centres into areas where people gather that are different from those on which we previously concentrated. The areas were chosen after careful consideration, including identifying where the bulk of people who were unlikely to have driving licences or passports were likely to live. We will supplement that by taking the mobile application centres to places where a significant population is gathered together, such as shopping centres or supermarkets. We presume that people who drive to out-of-town shopping centres have a driving licence. The purpose of such action is not only to reach people who may not be aware that the centres are available, but to increase public confidence and awareness of the process. Publicity will be targeted at eligible voters to tell them that they require photographic identification to vote and how to acquire it.

Political parties have a role to play. Evidence suggests that some parties are more successful than others in encouraging people who might be thought to be representative of their constituents to apply for electoral identification cards. My understanding of the process is that there was a clear and expressed partnership between the Government and the electoral parties in Northern Ireland that we wished to tighten up the rules and that we would work

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together to improve confidence in the changes. We shall ensure that the changes work and that the next election will be conducted so that people have greater confidence in the system than they have had in the past.

I use this opportunity to ask those parties to join me in the coming weeks in playing an active and positive role in raising awareness of the card and photographic identification, in general. I shall write to the leadership of the parties and offer them opportunities to do that. All the parties represented in the House have agreed to the introduction of the rules for the election so we must work together to ensure that we do not collectively disenfranchise honest voters accidentally.

If the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) wishes to ask me any questions now, I shall be happy to take an intervention from her.


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