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Viscount Bridgeman: My Lords, we on these Benches pay tribute to the efforts of the noble and learned Lord the Lord Privy Seal in setting these arrangements in place. We welcome this small but essential progress towards the reduction of electoral fraud in Northern Ireland. I have only one question for the Minister: as regards the very specific and comprehensive arrangements for the issue of the documentation, can she assure us that the software is in place?
Baroness Harris of Richmond: My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for introducing the regulations and the order. As we heard from the noble Baroness, the purpose of the regulations is to remove all non-photographic forms of identification from the list.
During the passage of the Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Act 2002, much debate took place on non-photographic forms of identification which could be open to abuse, for example the medical card. The Conservatives and these Benches argued that only photographic identification should be used to obtain a ballot paper. The Government introduced the electoral identity card and said that it was their intention to remove the non-photographic forms of ID from the list before the Assembly elections. However, they wanted to ensure that there was a sufficient take-up rate of the identity card so that no one would be deprived of their right to vote simply because they had the incorrect type of identification.
Concerns have certainly been raised about the electoral identity card, in particular the number of people who have not returned their application for one. About 200,000 people have stated that they required the ID but have not received it. One lady applied for her card in November but received it only yesterday. My concern is that the great length of time that it has taken for that to be received could be replicated for great numbers of people in Northern Ireland. We certainly support the intention behind the regulations. We have been looking for the Government's reassurances that such matters will be looked into, and that no one will be denied the right to vote because they do not have the correct identification. I am heartened by the Minister's response to that, giving us a number of assurances that have been put in place. I thank her for that.
I shall move on to the Local Elections (Northern Ireland) (Amendment) Order, which removes all non-photographic forms of identity. It is consequential on the Representation of the People (Northern Ireland) (Variation of Specified Documents) Regulations 2003, and provides that a ballot paper will not be delivered to the voter unless he or she produces one of the
Lord Laird: My Lords, I am happy to offer the support of the Ulster Unionist Party for these long overdue measures. The obvious need for the regulations is well known and, as such, I am going to resist the temptation to detail some of the more innovative techniques employed by republicans down the years in their attempts to cheat their way to electoral success.
Suffice it to say that, although Sinn Fein has significantly increased its representation in elected forums over some years, it would certainly not have done so to such an extent if the regulations had been in place. For example, the chairman of the Ulster Unionist Party, Mr James Cooper, would now be representing the proud constituency of Fermanagh and South Tyrone in another place, rather than Sinn Fein's Michelle Gildernew. Of that I am quite sure.
My principal concern surrounding electoral identity cards is that take-up among the electorate in Northern Ireland will not be as high as one would wish, simply because of ignorance. Believe it or not, interest in all things political and electoral is not as high in the community at large as it is in your Lordships' House. Even though the Government have taken steps to publicise the existence of the cards, I believe that more could and should have been done. I hope very much that it is not a case of too little, too late, although I fear that that might well be so. None the less, I support the regulations.
Lord Fitt: My Lords, the noble Baroness will be surprised that I can give her my full-hearted support, which makes this rather an unusual occasion. I think that those who would have tried to prevent the legislation coming before the House until after the election had something to gain from that attitude.
The very fact that the statutory instruments have come before the House is an indication about the assertion once made in another place that Northern Ireland was as British as Finchley. One does not have regulations such as these in Finchley or any other part of the United Kingdom. They show that Northern Ireland was unique in its fraudulent elections that took place over many years.
I have a slight concern, which I hope that the noble Baroness can ease. Many people in Northern Ireland, particularly old people, are averse to having their photographs taken. I know that from people in my own family on medication such as cortisone, which leads to physical attributes including swelling of the face, particularly in women. It puts people off having their photographs taken. I hope that the Government will make every effort to ensure that the absence of a photograph does not lead to the denial of a vote in Northern Ireland.
I was particularly heartened by what the noble Baroness said about the mobile units that are to travel Northern Ireland to advise people on their eligibility for a vote. I hope that enough staff would work in the mobile units to handle the applications and assist people to fill them in. If political parties are to travel around and make an application on someone else's behalf, or help them to make it, the applicant may feel compelled to support that political party. However, if the application is helped to become valid by government agencies, there would be less compulsion for people concerned to vote for a particular political party.
Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: My Lords, I am delighted that it is one of those rare occasions when speakers from all parts of the House have agreed with one another on the subject of Northern Ireland. In the absence of certain noble Lords, I could be emboldened to say to my noble friend Lord Fitt that not only is Northern Ireland not Finchley, but Finchley is not as beautiful as Northern Ireland, in spite of the beautiful trees in parts of it. I believe that we could probably all agree on that.
All noble Lords who spoke referred to the need to ensure that people know how to get help. I stress that there is a helpline telephone number that people can use for confirmation of programme dates and venues.
The noble Viscount, Lord Bridgeman, asked about the system of software. The equipment being used in relation to the card is state-of-the-art technology and the electoral office has the ability to cope more than adequately with the increased demand. I hope that that also reassures the noble Lord, Lord Laird. I am sure that the noble Lord does not expect me to comment in any way on his view about what happened in previous elections.
While recognising that a photograph is the best way of ascertaining a person's identity, I reassure the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, that there will be enough staff on hand. I understand what he said about people feeling under pressure if a political party helps them to complete their form. There is a programme of mobile application centres at which eligible applicants, such as those on the electoral register, can apply in person for an electoral identity card. At the centres, people can have their photograph taken and their application completed. I stress that that process is free of charge. Over the next few weeks, the centres will visit shopping centres and housing estates throughout the Province.
The noble Baroness said: My Lords, very simply, this order puts into practice a revised code of practice governing the video recording of interviews under the Terrorism Act 2000. I should remind noble Lords that the purpose of the code is to provide protection to both the person being interviewed and the officers conducting the interview, ensuring that no one can mistreat or falsely accuse the other.
The main revisions have been made at the request of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, to allow greater flexibility in the practical application of the code without diminishing the security that it provides. First, we have changed the text, which previously referred to the recordings being made on Super VHS, to say that recordings shall be made on Super VHS or an equivalent or superior format. That will allow them in future to use digital tapes or disks. A number of necessary changes in language have been made flowing from that basic change.
Secondly, a new paragraph has been added saying that, where possible, the recording equipment shall keep an audit trail of who views and copies the recordings. Of course, such an audit was kept manually under the existing code, but this allows for the equipment to keep that audit automatically. This refers to a specific system that the Police Service of Northern Ireland has been piloting.
The normal procedures for sealing videotapes have been kept for individual tapes or disks, but the code also allows for the police to introduce an alternative system as long as that system ensured the same or higher levels of security and accountability but without using seals. Again, this refers to a specific system being piloted by the Police Service of Northern Ireland.
The Government have also taken the opportunity to update the code, changing one or two names as necessary and extending the list of alternative formats in which the text can be made available. In line with the Home Office's draft amended PACE codes the statutory term "mentally disordered" has been widened
As I am sure noble Lords can see, these are small amendments. They do not alter the substance of the code but make it more adaptable to the realities of technological change. They also allow for future developments without necessarily requiring the code to be amended further. I am confident that the revised code will serve the police well as they carry out their sensitive counter-terrorist responsibilities. I commend the order to the House. I beg to move.
Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 12th March be approved [14th Report from the Joint Committee].(Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton.)
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