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Baroness Fookes moved Amendment No. 118A:


(" . Prior to the issue of a ballot paper, the presiding officer shall require each elector to identify himself by one of the following items of documentary evidence--
(a) a valid United Kingdom or European Union passport,
(b) a valid United Kingdom or European Union driving licence,
(c) a Department of Social Security pension, unemployment or family credit benefit book,
(d) a National Health Service medical card,
(e) a certificate of verification as issued by the electoral registration officer, or
(f) other such documentary evidence as may in the reasonable opinion of the presiding officer concerned constitute such evidence of the matters provided for within this section.").

The noble Baroness said: I hope that this new clause will be crystal clear in its intention. The idea is that before voting every voter should give some proof of identity. I have framed the amendment in this way because I felt that if it was left to the discretion of the presiding officer as to whether or not he asked for proof of identity, it might be tempting to do so in relation to someone who was shabbily dressed or suspicious looking. That could then be regarded as discrimination. If everyone walking into the polling station has to provide means of identification, that charge could not be brought.

I have suggested various official documents which I hope people will consider reasonable--a driving licence, a passport, social security documents, and the like; or anything else which the presiding officer considers reasonable in order to prove the identity of that person. I do so because the present system has an in-built weakness in as much as the presiding officer really cannot challenge anyone's identity by asking for evidence. I believe that in Northern Ireland proof of identity is required to deal with the specific problem, which it has had in the past and may still have for all I

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know, of personation on a fairly wide scale. When we are making all these changes and we are invited to think afresh on electoral systems, that is a good moment to repair what I believe to be a weakness.

Indeed, I suspect that the weakness will become greater as we embark on the various experiments which may well become general and universal. If, for example, we have one central polling station, or if there are the mobile polling stations about which we spoke earlier today, that may make it less easy for presiding officers to determine the identity of voters. Moreover, we are going to have people who have no specific address but are considered to have some connection with a locality, which makes it even more difficult to decide who they are without other means of identification.

Furthermore, there are likely to be increasing numbers of referenda on specific topics. That does not particularly appeal to me, but if a referendum is to take place on an issue about which people feel very strongly, we may well see personation and fraud on a greater scale. One has only to think of the fury that is engendered by the issues of fox hunting, abortion, or whatever it may be, to know that people become infuriated and uptight. Such referenda will provide a greater temptation.

I understand also that when we have given advice on elections abroad, we have suggested that means of identification should be part and parcel of the whole system. My suggestion therefore seems to be a sensible and not very radical one. I gather that most European countries ask for means of identification before voting. I hope that the Minister will look kindly on what I believe to be a reasonable and sensible suggestion. I beg to move.

Lord Norton of Louth: I should like to add my voice in support of what my noble friend said. I hope that the Minister will look sympathetically at the amendment. My noble friend has made out a persuasive case. What she proposes would help to protect the integrity of the electoral process. That is extremely important. I addressed that point at Second Reading and I do not want to rehearse the arguments that I put forward then.

I can anticipate the Minister's response. I suspect he will say that there is no evidence of any significant abuse. However, we know that no systematic study has been carried out to determine whether there is a real problem. There is some evidence that occasionally there has been a problem, as we know from Winchester at the previous election, but no study has been carried out to see whether there is a serious problem.

In the absence of such a study, there are two reasons for having the safeguard proposed by my noble friend. The first is as a reassurance. Electors should know that there is a safeguard. That is important to the integrity of the process. The other is as a deterrent: to deter anyone who may be tempted to abuse the system. What my noble friend proposes would help to protect the integrity of the process.

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At Second Reading I put forward a slightly different way of addressing the problem. But I think that my noble friend's amendment is a step in the right direction and I hope that it gets a fair wind.

Baroness Gould of Potternewton: Perhaps I may make one or two comments about this subject. I have some sympathy with the sentiments behind the amendment. I hope that we can give the matter further consideration because I am not absolutely certain that what is in the amendment is the right way of tackling the problem. I agree that we have to be careful about abuse and that we have to have safeguards.

I should like to make one point about the European elections, particularly with regard to the elections conducted in the new democracies. They were very different because all those countries have identity cards. The noble Baroness's amendment raises that whole question. Therefore, I suggest that we need to give the matter further consideration.

I do not have a problem with identity cards, but I understand the reasons why other people do. I came back from so many of my visits to eastern Europe absolutely enthused about the identity card, and for one reason: people could register on election day because they had an identity card. It meant that people were not precluded from voting. It seemed to be a sensible system. There is merit in thinking about how we can ensure that there is not abuse. I cannot remember the other suggestion made by the noble Lord, Lord Norton, in his Second Reading speech. I shall have to look it up. I hope that the Minister will agree that we should look at this matter again.

Lord Biffen: I welcome the debate initiated by my noble friend Lady Fookes. There is widespread unease about the state of electoral registration with regard to those who are entitled to vote and those who never go through the process of getting on to the register. I have the instinct that those who do not register today comprise a far greater number than would have been the case five, 10 or 15 years ago. We have no hard evidence. We know that those who are registered then turn up at a general election. But the percentage abstaining or the percentage not voting is tending to increase; and against the rather surprising background of there now being wider political coverage by formal political parties than has been the case hitherto.

In those circumstances, there is a feeling of, "How do we make voting easier?" I am not sure that that really is the correct question. There is much merit in trying to attach to the whole process of voting not effort but certainly a qualification; something one holds in one's hand without which one cannot vote. My noble friend Lady Fookes has expressed not a restrictive attitude; it is an attempt to make voting a rather formal exercise of a privilege that has been fought for over the years. It would be no bad thing if we tried to restore that sense to voting--a sense that would certainly have been entertained before the First World War, when gaining the vote was still in recent

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memory. Having to, as it were, claim your vote is a very sensible gesture. I wish my noble friend well in her pursuit of that objective.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My noble friend Lady Fookes has done us a service in introducing the amendment. When we discussed the Scottish and Welsh referendum rules, I raised the question of identification. The debate ended unsatisfactorily. It was perfectly clear that if a presiding officer had some doubts, he was entitled to say, "You are Mr Smith?", but when the person said, "Yes, I am Mr Smith", that was an end of the business so far as I could see. The electoral officer had no entitlement to ask the person to prove his identity. A voter who is impersonating Mr Smith will of course say that he is Mr Smith. So there is a problem.

I live in the constituency of Glasgow Govan, where these matters are something of a worry. Indeed, there is no doubt that personation has taken place in that constituency. It is more a matter of who organises it, not whether it takes place--there is no doubt that it does. The only way to stop that happening is to ask for some means of identification. We must begin thinking about that.

If we are to go down the road of electronic voting and of people voting at different polling stations, not only in their own area, there is a fair chance that presiding officers over much of the country will either know the person voting, or have a vague idea when they look at the register that people were not who they had thought them to be.

If we are to introduce mobile polling stations and people are able to vote at any station, in a school, a supermarket or whatever, and if we have electronic voting--which is what we should have to do in order to achieve that--identification becomes a much more important problem. I shall be surprised if the Minister accepts my noble friend's amendment. However, I hope that he will indicate that, as we move to new voting systems, the need for identification may well increase.

6.15 p.m.

Lord Bach: This has been another fascinating debate, distinguished by the powerful group of noble Lords who have spoken to these two amendments. The noble Baroness, Lady Fookes, asks whether her amendment is clear. It is indeed very clear in its form. I pay tribute to the noble Baroness's distinguished record as a member of the Home Affairs Select Committee in another place for a number of years.

I cannot resist the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Biffen, on the importance of voting. He is absolutely right. It is an important event. He spoke about the First World War and the time before that. I should like to bring the noble Lord slightly further forward and point to the fact that women under 21 did not have the vote until the 1929 general election. I mention that for the personal reason that I am fortunate enough to be the

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great nephew of Mrs Pankhurst. She would understand completely, as will all women, what the noble Lord is saying and how important the vote is.

Having made those helpful remarks, I am not sure that I can be quite as helpful in the rest of what I say. All of us share the noble Baroness's desire to prevent electoral fraud. Her motives in tabling Amendment No. 118A are good. The noble Baroness is right. A requirement to provide documentary proof of identity before being issued with a ballot paper already exists in Northern Ireland. That is a reflection of the special difficulties with electoral fraud that have been experienced there.

However, I must tell the Committee that there is no evidence of similar problems occurring in Britain. Our minds are never closed on this subject; however, the Government would be most reluctant, without very good cause, to introduce new measures which would make it harder for people here to cast their vote.

The Working Party on Electoral Procedures, which had representatives of political parties and electoral administrators among its members, examined all aspects of electoral procedure but saw no need to make a recommendation of this kind. More pertinently in this case, the Home Affairs Select Committee in another place specifically considered this issue as part of its inquiry into electoral law and administration. Reporting in September 1998, the committee concluded (at paragraph 102):

    "We broadly agree that there is at present no great problem with impersonation in British elections outside Northern Ireland, and we do not see a need to introduce any additional requirements to prove identity before being given a ballot paper".

Amendment No. 136, tabled by the noble Lord, is obviously prompted by the most impeccable of motives. But is it necessary? All or many Members of the Committee are no doubt assiduous voters in local elections. Some Members of the Committee, including myself, will recall voting in general elections, although, alas, that is not something that we are able to do now. So your Lordships will have considerable experience of what happens in a polling station. I imagine that experience is similar to mine. If you have taken your polling card with you, the presiding officer will generally ask you to confirm the details on it. If you have forgotten to take your polling card, you will be asked for your name and address.

That is normally the end of the matter. However, if the presiding officer has any reason for doubt, he can put the statutory questions that are set out in Rule 35 of the Parliamentary Election Rules. That seems to us at present to be a perfectly satisfactory system and there is no reason to require the presiding officer to put those questions to every single elector, as we believe would be the effect of the noble Lord's amendment.

The Working Party on Electoral Procedures, to whose report the Bill gives effect, had, as I said, experts--both administrators and representatives of political parties-- among its membership. They saw no need to make a recommendation for change in this area either.

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Having said all that, we shall of course keep a close watch on what happens to the electoral process in the years that lie ahead. I invite the noble Baroness to withdraw her amendment; however, I do so not on the basis that that is the end of the argument for ever--it clearly is not. We are not minded at present to go down the route that she suggests, but our minds are not closed to the issue. I do not say that we shall return to it during the course of the Bill, but it is certainly something that the Government will keep very much in mind.

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