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

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Mr. Taylor: Will the Minister give way to me?

Mr. Browne: I will.

Mr. Taylor: The Minister will know that there is a small but determined Conservative party in Northern Ireland with which I am on particularly friendly terms. If there is any explanatory information or documentation that he wishes to share with me, I promise to convey it to that small but real little party.

Mr. Browne: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his offer. I shall take him up on it. The response may not be a sign of the size of the Conservative party in Northern Ireland, but it will certainly confirm whether his view of their determination is right—[Interruption.] I shall be happy to include the hon. Gentleman in my invitation to work together.

Lady Hermon: I remind the Minister that I might have many virtues, but I regret that patience is not one of them. He did test me to the limit. Will the hon. Gentleman reflect on the research that was commissioned when we were discussing the Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Bill? If my memory serves me correctly, it showed that the majority of people who did not have photographic ID were elderly widows who had not learned to drive because, traditionally, their husbands were the drivers. They did not take a driving test after their husbands died. They had never left Northern Ireland, so they had never needed a passport. Does the Minister accept that the original application form for the ID cards was difficult to read and wholly inappropriate for elderly people to comprehend? Is that why a new application form has been produced?

Mr. Browne: I am grateful to the hon. Lady, and I agree that at the time there was significant evidence to suggest that the elderly—in particular, elderly single women—are those who are least likely to have photographic identification. However, there is also strong evidence to suggest that the subsequent distribution of concessionary travelcards or Smartpasses may have gone a significant way to correcting that deficit, because those persons were a large proportion of the people who applied for that card.

I take on board what the hon. Lady says about the ease with which people can understand the application

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form, but I did not think that the form was particularly difficult to understand. If it is to be processed electronically, certain demands have to be made of it and the ability to process it electronically is very important to the efficiency of its administration thereafter. However, I accept the hon. Lady's point, and when the new form is being printed we will see if any big improvements can be made.

In the hon. Lady's constituency, about 7,500 people ticked the box indicating that they needed an electoral identity card and about 1,600 electoral identity cards were issued to electors in the postal codes area that broadly covers her constituency. She will be happy to know that there was a very small number of rejected applications from her constituency—about 50 have not re-applied. For all the wards in her constituency, on average about 15 per cent. of electors ticked the box and consequently mobile application centres were available within the North Down constituency at a number of locations on a number of dates. I will not rehearse them for the Committee, but I will be happy to give them to the hon. Lady and I will put them on to the public record if she wishes me to do so. Those centres will be back.

I have asked the chief electoral officer to write to all elected politicians in Northern Ireland at Assembly and parliamentary levels to give them detailed information about what steps have been taken in their constituencies to ensure that people have the opportunity to apply for the electoral identification card and to give them the future programme for mobile centres. I hope that that will help us to work together for those who are on the ground encouraging their constituents to attend those centres to apply for electoral identification cards at the appropriate time and place—if they are told when that will be.

People still have seven weeks to apply for a card and the chief electoral officer has guaranteed that all correct applications received by 16 May will be processed in time for the Assembly election. People can apply by post or in person at a number of mobile application centres. This is the final piece of the jigsaw in our fight against electoral fraud.

I hope that the Committee recognises the importance that these changes represent in improving confidence in the electoral system in Northern Ireland, and in tackling abuse at the polling station.

9.23 am

Mr. Taylor: I have a warm regard for the Minister, not only because I find him personally congenial, but because I consider him to be thorough with regard to his brief. However, if that was a short introduction to a Bill, I doubt whether I have the ability to endure a long one. [Laughter.]

I am going to quote from The Daily Telegraph, which is the Pravda of the Conservative party and is sometimes known as the ''Torygraph.'' My briefing for these Committees is always thorough, particularly when you are in the Chair, Mr. O'Brien. I spend hours looking into the detail and provenance of the measure to come before us. In The Daily Telegraph of 11 July 2001, almost two years ago, under a heading ''Identity card scheme to beat Ulster vote cheats'', it said that,

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with regard to the proposed voter identity card scheme, I had

    ''said the Bill had the broad support of''


    ''party, particularly since impersonation during the elections had been 'endemic'''.

That is an extraordinary word; in fact, I did not know that I had said it, but I must have, as it is in The Daily Telegraph. Last night in my flat, the address of which I will not give to the Committee for security reasons, I looked up ''endemic'' and found that it was pertinent to some kind of contagious disease. The article quotes me as saying ''impersonation'' but I think that I would have said ''personation.'' [Interruption.] I will give way if the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) wants me to. You will protect me from such interruptions, Mr. O'Brien.

Last night—I think that I must have been afflicted with a little good will of some kind or other—I was reminded of the great F. E. Smith, who is said to have made the best maiden speech in the Oxford Union, and the best in this House, too. In a certain famous debate in the Oxford Union, he intervened early on to speak in favour of the motion. Becoming somewhat bored in the later stages of the debate, he intervened again to speak against it. Those present said that it was hard to decide which was the better speech. Pinned down as I am by The Daily Telegraph, I think that it behoves me to maintain the position given there and say once again that my party broadly supports the measure today.

It has been my custom with Northern Ireland statutory instruments to apply the Taylor tests, which are threefold. First, does the instrument make the law of Northern Ireland more or less convergent with the law of the rest of Britain? As the explanatory memorandum says:

    ''This Instrument extends to Northern Ireland only.''

We are talking about a singular measure, applicable only to Northern Ireland, and therefore it does not make the law of Northern Ireland convergent with the law of Britain; rather, the reverse. However, I do not fault it on that count. It may well prove that, in this case, Northern Ireland is in the lead and the rest of Britain may want to reflect on whether to do something similar.

Clearly, what is being done in Northern Ireland is necessary. People must have confidence in electoral systems. The hon. Member for North Down will want to know, when she is triumphantly returned, that the election has been carried out in the most scrupulous manner in terms of the integrity of the franchise, the exercising of it and the declared result in consequence of it. Confidence in electoral systems is of the greatest importance in Northern Ireland, more so perhaps than in any other part of Britain. But if the rest of Britain can learn from this experience, it could be promising.

The measure fails John Taylor's tests of convergence or divergence from the law of the rest of Britain but I do not fault it on that ground; I salute it for that reason. My next test, which is slightly more

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frivolous, because I intend the first to be taken very seriously—

Lady Hermon: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Taylor: May I complete my point and then I will happily give way to the hon. Lady?

On a lighter note, the negative test that I apply is whether the measure introduces a new ombudsman or commission. Mercifully, this proposal does not, therefore it gets my seal of approval on that count.

Lady Hermon: The hon. Gentleman made a good point about the differentiation between voters' rights in Northern Ireland and in the rest of the United Kingdom. He will know that under the European convention on human rights, now part of domestic law under the Human Rights Act 1998, the rights are guaranteed throughout the United Kingdom without any discrimination on whatever status or ground. It could be argued that voters in Great Britain are entitled to the same rights as voters in Northern Ireland, under the human rights legislation.

Mr. Taylor: I am most grateful to the hon. Lady, who is an acknowledged expert on human rights matters, which I am not. I shall content myself with a pragmatic layman's observation: if it works well in Northern Ireland, the rest of Britain should pay attention. There may be some best-practice lessons to be learned from it, and I am all in favour of learning such lessons and avoiding the need to reinvent the wheel. If someone has already invented it, the rest of us can get the design. We will see how the measure goes, and wish it well.

The third test is to ask what evidence there is that elected local representatives and relevant consultees in Northern Ireland favour the measure. Members of the Committee will have heard me say before that, as an Englishman, I do not presume to tell my fellow citizens in Northern Ireland what is best for them. If there were evidence—perhaps from before the suspension of the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive—that those bodies had deliberated on behalf of the people whom they represent, and had already begun to look favourably on the measures, I would find that highly persuasive. I am already persuaded that it would enable me to leave the Committee confident that I have been concordant with elected representatives from Northern Ireland.

Three questions remain, beyond which I will not delay the Committee or trespass upon eternity. I will have plenty of opportunity for that later in the Chamber. First, will the Minister comment on other action he is taking to tackle electoral fraud in general, and personation in particular, in Northern Ireland? Secondly, what estimates has he made of the number of voters in Northern Ireland who will require a voter identity card? Thirdly, will the Minister make a statement on the large fall in the number of registered voters on the electoral register, which was revealed last December? Is there anything sinister in that fall, or is it the beginning, which would be welcome, of the smoking out of people who are falsely on the electoral register—in which case, all strength to

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the Minister in getting the bogus off the register, so that the rightful can vote for the rightful.

The Conservative party actively wishes the measure well. Indeed, I repeat my offer to contact my friends in the party in Northern Ireland. I shall be interested to see how it works, because there may be some promising lessons to be learned.

9.35 am

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