As you sagely observed, Mr. Walker, the amendment hangs with amendment No. 2. It may be to the convenience of hon. Members who are taking an interest in our proceedings if I set out the effects of the amendments on the Bill. The new proposed rule, if the amendments are made, would read:
A ballot paper shall not be delivered to a voter if the officer or clerk decides that there is a reasonable doubt as to whether the voter is the elector or proxy he represents himself to be.
A leading article in The Times this morning carried a sentiment from which most hon. Members would find it difficult to dissent. It states of Ulster that
the rules by which it returns members to Westminster should be the same as the rules that return members from other parts of the kingdom.
So far that seems to be a statement of a proposition which it would be in the nature of the House to assert. As is the custom of The Times, which looks for the approximate middle of the fence, it then asks whether there were any qualifications which the rule admitted. Not surprisingly, moving to its accustomed seat, it said:
Yes, provided there are strong and special reasons for variation, and"—
these are the words to which I wish to draw attention—
provided the variation does not touch the franchise.
As the Bill is drafted, the variation in the voting procedure proposed for Northern Ireland does, indeed, touch the franchise. The Bill in its present form enacts a new and additional condition for casting a vote. One must have not only the other entitlements of being an elector and not being disqualified; one must not only be entered upon the register of electors; one must also fulfil a new condition without which one will not be allowed to cast one's vote. The condition is the production of a prescribed document.
That is as major an alteration in the franchise as could be imagined. As the Parliamentary Under-Secretary conceded in his reply on Second Reading last week, these are uncharted waters. It is new in our electoral law to withhold the vote from those who are otherwise qualified to vote, except upon the condition that they produce a document. Hitherto there has been no limitation and no let or hindrance upon the right of the voter duly entered upon the register to cast his vote. How he must fulfil the condition of producing a document.
That would be wholly objectionable and a wholly unacceptable modification of the law of the franchise, especially in only one part of the United Kingdom, whatever had been the nature of the document or documents to be produced. The mere requirement that the elector shall not vote unless he has produced a defined document is a revolution, albeit a revolution restricted geographically in the kingdom, in the law of the franchise of this country. Consequently, it would send us back to the proposition that it is unjustifiable to alter the law under which the franchise is exercised in one part of the United Kingdom—Northern Ireland.
The mischief to which the amendments draw attention is not restricted to that major inroad upon the liberties of the subject and the rights of the elector. It creates an almost incredible position in the polling station by the provisions of subsection 1(B), which reads:
Where a voter produces a prescribed document, the presiding officer or clerk to whom it is produced shall deliver a ballot paper to the voter unless the officer or clerk decides that the document raises a reasonable doubt as to whether the voter is the elector or proxy he represents himself to be.
Should the presiding officer come to the conclusion that the document raises a reasonable doubt, he will refuse to deliver a ballot paper to the voter. The voter is not only disfranchised unless he complies with the condition of producing a document, but he will be disfranchised if, on its face, the document raises a reasonable doubt in the mind of the presiding officer.
I am substituting the words "presiding officer" in my restatement of the effect of the clause for the words "officer or clerk", because in the event of doubt arising in the mind of a clerk, the matter would, under the subsequent provisions, be referred to the presiding officer. I am glad to have the Minister's assent on that. We are referring to the judgment of the presiding officer.
Therefore, let us consider, carefully and cautiously, the crucial words in the new rule:
unless the officer … decides that the document raises a reasonable doubt".
It is the document that must raise that doubt. Under the clause the presiding officer is directed to look at the document and at nothing else. If that document, as it is presented to him by the would-be voter, raises in his mind a reasonable doubt, he has to deny that would-be voter the opportunity to vote.
It was suggested on Second Reading on Thursday that the presiding officer could use his common sense and that perhaps the word "reasonable" in that context may have been misunderstood. But the word "reasonable" in that context has to be interpreted in the light of the words with which it is located. It says:
unless … the document raises a reasonable doubt".
That must mean a doubt that is reasonable in the light of what is in the document.
There may, for instance, be a minor imperfection in the document, something which was clearly a misprint or a mistake of some kind. Therefore, in those circumstances, the document could be held not to raise a reasonable doubt in the mind of the presiding officer who was studying it. But if that is the meaning, that only the document must be the basis of the doubt which withholds the vote from the elector, we are in a grave position indeed. For it is to be the document and the document alone, as it stands, which is not merely produced as a condition of voting, but which, if any doubt attaches to that document and to nothing else, will deprive the elector of his vote.
If the Government are going to say that I am misinterpreting the clause, I have two observations to make. First, this is a matter too important to be left in any doubt. If it is not intended to bear the construction that I have placed upon it, it ought to be so amended that it is clear that the doubt is to be one which arises not simply from the document but from the document in the light of all the circumstances. Or, to put it in vulgar terms, to make it clear that the presiding officer is entitled to use his common sense.
If the Government are going to say that, they have gone a long way indeed. The Government are in a cleft stick. On the one hand they can say that the document and nothing else will decide the eligibility of the elector. That is to say, when my hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann (Mr. McCusker) turns up with an out-of-date medical card with the wrong address on it, the presiding officer will not look at him and say that it is his old friend Harold McCusker and that he is the chap on the register. He cannot do that.
The right hon. Gentleman keeps concentrating on the second half of the sentence. What is being said is that the presiding officer shall decide. Surely any human being going through the process of decision-making uses his common sense.
Yes, but it depends on what is the object of the verb "to decide". It depends on what he is to decide and all turns upon that. However, if the hon. Gentleman will bear with me he will share and no doubt enjoy the dilemma on which the Government have pinned themselves by the wording of the clause.
The first alternative is that the clause is to be interpreted strictly as I propose. The presiding officer, confronted with the obsolete medical card of my hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann, will not be able to look at the would-be elector. He will hold up the document in front of himself, rather like the Mogul emperor who had been blinded by the Rohillas and who was asked in mockery whether he saw anything. He answered, "Nothing between me and thee but the holy Koran." The presiding officer is to look only on the face of the document. He is to observe and consider nothing else.
I am listening with great admiration to the right hon. Gentleman's very clear exposition, but does he agree that if the presiding officer does not entertain a reasonable doubt, the document cannot have raised it?
Yes, I think that I can go as far as that with the right hon. and learned Gentleman. That is the case in which the elector, having had these obstacles placed in his path, is nevertheless able to exercise the franchise. But I am concerned with the case in which the "unless" condition specified in the rule is fulfilled. I return, I hope for the last time, to the predicament of my hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann. The presiding officer will have to declare that the document produced by my hon. Friend, as it specifies the wrong address, raises a reasonable doubt as to whether its holder is the person shown on the register at my hon. Friend's new and present address.
That is one of the alternatives between which the Government must choose. but that is apparently not the one that they choose. They say that that is not the interpretation. But, if it is not, I hope that they will make it much clearer than it is upon the face of the Bill before we part with it. The alternative is that the presiding officer considers other things, that he uses his judgment and that he takes into account not only the document but other matters that might reasonably raise a doubt in his mind. So a very important and wide Rubicon has been crossed by the Government upon that interpretation. They have accepted what the present electoral law does not accept, which is a presiding officer's right and duty — not merely right—to exercise his judgment and to make a decision, to use the word emphasised by the hon. Member for Foyle (Mr. Hume), in the light of his common sense, no doubt taking account of the document but not being bound by it, whether that is indeed the elector whose name stands on the electoral roll.
If that is the alternative that the Government prefer, they must think a good deal further and a good deal more stringently before they can be satisfied with the Bill. I need not remind the Minister that at present the presiding officer has no discretion whatever except to put the two statutory questions. But, having put them, he has no discretion to disbelieve the answers. Unless the legislation has the first of the two alternative meanings that I offered the Government, it is something different and is an enactment which for the first time—and, incidentally, in only one part of the Kingdom—will give the presiding officer a real discretion to use his common sense, presumably using his eyes, ears and so on, to decide whether personation is taking place.
What will the presiding officer do? Will he just apply his common sense in vacuo? Will he rely upon his knowledge of the neighbourhood and upon the fact that he knows what that person whose name is on the register looks like and that there is no resemblance to my hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann? Incidentally, I apologise, because I have over-used the example, classic though it is, presented by my hon. Friend. But does the presiding officer go by the physiognomy of the would-be voter and nothing else? Does he go by his general smell and instinct of what might be going on, or does he ask questions? I should have thought that we would not be willing for a matter of such importance to be settled by a presiding officer without him being able to put certain questions to the person asking for the vote.
What we have in the clause is either an absurdity, which should be unacceptable to the Government or any section of the House of Commons—a wholly binding document beyond which the presiding officer has no power to look—or we have a discretion, vested for the first time in the presiding officer, to smell out personation, no doubt with the assistance of a document. If, in his judgment there is a reasonable doubt that personation is taking place. he may withhold the vote. That is both severe and far reaching.
We understand that the Government have been influenced in their preparation of the legislation by the fear that presiding officers might be unwilling to shoulder the responsibility and the risk of exercising their discretion. They can hardly, thus motivated, come before the House of Commons and say that that means that the presiding officer is to exercise his discretion. It would be just as invidious, just as dangerous, for the presiding officer to exercise the first as to exercise the second of those discretions — for him to say to a person presenting a document, "I do not like your document, you can take it away", or "there are certain discrepancies between this document and the register, can you give me a reasonable explanation for that?"
Is my right hon. Friend suggesting a specific or a series of specific extra statutory questions that the presiding officer may ask, in addition to the limited questions that he can currently ask, or is he advocating a general provision that the presiding officer could ask any questions to prevent personation?
The hon. Gentleman is asking the very questions to which I would be surprised if the Government were not already directing their mind. If he discovers that the answers to those questions are all bristling with various difficulties, probably that is a discovery that has already been made among those who advise the occupants of the Treasury Bench.
Merely to add to the statutory questions does not help us, because the presiding officer, under existing law, is obliged to believe an answer, however untrue, tendered to a statutory question. It would be no use simply to extend the list of statutory questions. We would have to turn the statutory questions into real questions and then enable the list of those to be extended, before we could arm the presiding officer with the powers and the duties that would make sense of the provision.
The amendment raises two of the central issues of the Bill. First, there is the question whether the franchise should be dependent upon the document. My hon. Friends and I answer that question in an unhesitating negative. We shall maintain an amendment — not necessarily this amendment, but an amendment—that will remove that blemish upon our law of franchise.
I am much obliged to the hon. Gentleman I hope that his words will be persuasive in the ears of his right hon. and hon. Friends. If he will allow his eye to fall further down the Order Paper, he will find a proposed new subsection that would have the effect of enabling presiding officers to take account of documents—not necessarily a limited range of documents, but any documents—that bore upon the identity of the person in forming their judgment.
It may be that in the end the decision will have to be that the judgment of the presiding officer must be satisfied that it is indeed the person specified on the register, and that documents as well as questions may be relevant to that satisfaction. That, of course, will be very different from a satisfactory answer to the statutory questions. It will also be very different from the question of a reasonable doubt, for a reasonable doubt is not the opposite to being satisfied of a fact. It seems to me that the presiding officer ought to be satisfied of the fact that the person before him is indeed the elector before a ballot paper is given out. That is the first of the root issues which the amendments raise.
The second reason, to which I referred in reply to an intervention, is the discretion of the presiding officer. These are matters that the Government cannot leave where they stand at the moment. The new rule, in its present form, is indefensible. It has not only to be restated so that we know which alternative of the dilemma the Government have chosen. If in their dilemma they choose the only rational alternative, the Bill must be so extended as to give to presiding officers exactly that discretion which this legislature considers is right and necessary.
The Government, as I said last Thursday, will have to take the Bill away and look at it again. I was encouraged by the words which were used on Second Reading by the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, when he said that "it is sensible for the Government, having heard the arguments
in today's debate, to be able to give the Committee a considered view of our position before embarking on the remaining stages." —[Official Report, 15 November 1984; Vol. 67, c. 877.]
I admit that the context of those wise words was the content of the list of prescribed documents. Nevertheless, they are words which are wise and to be recommended in their own right.
Therefore, I hope that the Government will not so arrange the conduct of this business in Committee that they are unable to have time themselves to reconsider their position in what the Minister himself called "these uncharted waters". They have set themselves a task of considerable difficulty. It is a task which will call for real determination on the part of the Secretary of State to find a satisfactory method, instead of this unsatisfactory method—if he intends to do it at all—of altering the law as it applies to Northern Ireland.
Fortunately, we know that the Secretary of State is a determined man. Those of us who had the pleasure of watching the interview on television in which he featured with his right hon. Friend the Prime Minister held our breaths when the Prime Minister turned to the right hon. Gentleman and said, "But you are a determined man, aren't you?" There we sat, holding our fingers and hoping that he would give the answer, "No". He chose, if I may say so, the easy way out, and gave the answer, "Yes". So, since we may treat this as a statutory question, we know indeed that the right hon. Gentleman is a determined man because, like the Lily of Laguna, he "says so". Will he, then, apply his determination to what he already realises are the real and unsolved problems lying upon the surface of the clause which is before the Committee?
Time is now available to the Secretary of State without prejudicing the possibility of having the legislation in place before next May. He has the time; let him use it. That is the plea with which my hon. Friends and I urge these amendments to which we have put our names and to which we are in duty bound to put our votes.
I ask the Committee to bear in mind what I asked the House to consider last Thursday. Despite what we heard last Thursday and what we shall hear this evening, personation is not as widespread in Northern Ireland as some believe. Presiding officers are not required to exercise their minds every time someone comes in to vote at a polling station in Northern Ireland. At best, we are dealing with 10 per cent. and less— [Interruption.] We can argue about the proportions. There is no doubt that in constituency after constituency in Northern Ireland, presiding officers, polling agents and others are not worried about the abuse of personation. Last Thursday, I gave evidence of that, and it was not contradicted. There are vast swathes of Northern Ireland where personation and especially vote-stealing are not problems.
Last Thursday, I posed the question whether the Standing Advisory Commission on Human Rights had changed its mind since its eighth annual report and made a different recommendation to the Government. I learnt that the commission had produced another document a few weeks previously. On reading the document, it does not appear that the commission had changed its mind to advise the Government to ask for some form of identification. Rather, the commission accepted the fact that the Government would proceed along these lines and said that it would express its view. The commission is not a body whose opinions can be lightly set to one side, yet, when talking about personation, it said:
Proof is notoriously difficult to obtain and hard-and-fast evidence has not been produced to substantiate or disprove allegations but the weight of opinion within the majority of political parties … is that some form of identification should be required before a person claiming a vote is given a ballot paper.
The commission went on:
The Commission has reservations about the merits of such a proposal but accepts that it warrants testing.
The commission expressed certain other reservations, and then said:
there is an inherent risk that the requirement to produce proof of identity may in effect disfranchise some of the electorate. Some electors will not have ready access to identification documents of the kind proposed, and may not want to go to the inconvenience involved in acquiring identification in advance of polling day. Others may not he aware of the requirement and will arrive at polling stations without the necessary identification expecting to be allowed to vote. The Commission cannot rule out the possibility that some of these voters will be so alienated by this experience that they may never again exercise their right to vote and will be lost to the democratic process.
There is plenty of evidence that people are not voting in the numbers hon. Members generally think. In the 1982 Assembly election, which, we were told, was an election during which personation had occurred, for every person who voted in county Antrim, one did not. There was a 52 per cent. poll. That is hardly evidence of massive personation or a high motivation to go to the polls. [Interruption.] That may well be so, but it will not help them to believe in much else.
We are worried that we are building into the Northern Ireland electoral laws the position whereby a document would give a person the right to vote, even if that person had no right to vote. A person who identifies himself without a doubt by other means may be denied the right to vote because he does not have the prescribed document. I shall not go over the ground covered by my right hon. Friend the Member for South Down (Mr. Powell).
As soon as I had finished my speech last Thursday, I was met by a number of hon. Members from both sides of the Chamber. I was told that my interpretation of certain parts of the legislation was wrong. If the explanatory document is wrong, I need to be assured that it is wrong. Clause 1(2) states:
(1A) A ballot paper shall not be delivered to a voter unless he has produced a prescribed document to the presiding officer or a clerk.
The explanatory document expands that. It states: "Rule 37(1A) requires that a ballot paper should not be delivered to a voter unless he has produced a prescribed
document to the presiding officer or a clerk. The provision is mandatory: the presiding officer or clerk will have no discretion to permit him to vote without producing a document.
A list of documents is given. I or anyone else who goes to that polling station, and does not have one of those prescribed documents, will riot be allowed to vote. I may well be able to establish that I am the person on the register. I might have all sorts of proof and I might be well known in the area. If I read this correctly, however, if I do not have a prescribed document with me—no matter how deficient the document may be—I shall not be allowed to vote.
I was told that that was a misinterpretation. I should like to know what the misinterpretation is, because, as my right hon. Friend the Member for South Down said, if we allow some discretion where will the limit be? Will the discretion be given to a presiding officer because he is dealing with a Member of Parliament, a local councillor or some other local worthy who is known in the community or when it comes to perhaps a new resident or someone who is not generally known in the community will that discretion be denied?
Is clause 1(2)(1A) as dictatorial as is stated in the explanatory document—"The provision is mandatory."? One of the prescribed documents must be produced arid, if it is not, no vote will be permitted.
I illustrated the nonsense of that by referring to my right hon. Friend the Member for South Down. One of the prescribed documents is a current Great Britain driving licence. Unlike a Northern Ireland driving licence, it has no photograph. My right hon. Friend could lose his driving licence or it could be stolen from him.
My right hon. Friend does not think that likely, but it could happen. Someone in the South Down area could go to the polling station where my right hon. Friend normally votes, present himself to the presiding officer and say, "I am Enoch Powell " If he produces a prescribed document— the driving licence with the name "Enoch Powell" on it—he has met all the criteria.
There is nothing on the document that is likely to raise a reasonable doubt. Is that person to be denied the right to vote as Enoch Powell because that presiding officer exercises his discretion? He will say to himself, "This is not Enoch Powell." There is no photograph on the document, and there is nothing to show that it is not Enoch Powell. He is relying on the fact that he knows an Enoch Powell. He is assuming that the person standing in front of him has acquired the document illegally. Is that the position?
That discretion and power is not given to the presiding officer, because the next subsection provides that
Where a voter produces a prescribed document, the presiding officer or clerk to whom it is produced shall deliver a ballot paper to the voter unless the officer or clerk decides that the document raises a reasonable doubt".
That relates to the document. The person standing there is saying, "I am Enoch Powell." He has produced a document which purports to show that he is Enoch Powell. What in the document raises a reasonable doubt? There is no photograph on that prescribed document to show that it is my right hon. Friend that the presiding officer believes that the man is trying to personate.
Unless the document has been altered or there is something on it to cause the presiding officer to ask questions, the document does not help. We want to know whether that is the right interpretation.
In the other situation that has been already described by my right hon. Friend, I can arrive at my polling station, give my name, produce my medical card and, as I showed last Thursday, my medical card would raise a reasonable doubt. The address on my medical card is not the same as my address on the register.
I am sure that that would add further complications. In Portadown there is only one Harold McCusker.
I have arrived at my polling station and produced my prescribed document, my medical card, but on the face of it, it would raise reasonable doubts about whether I am the person entitled to vote because the address on the card is not the same as the address on the register. What do we do there?
I am not required to do that. Assuming that two or three days before the election I thought that that was necessary, I still would not have the time to do so. Many people might be in that situation.
I have been told to use a bit of common sense and to be reasonable about this. The presiding officer will know who I am and will use his discretion. However, are we not suggesting that the presiding officer can use his discretion where it is to the advantage of people in the community who are well known? Someone might come after me who is not well known, and also have a medical card the address on which does not coincide with the address on the register. That is highly likely. Is the presiding officer to say, "I am sorry. I know that I could accept that gentleman's document because I know him, but I am not prepared to accept yours."? I could help him by producing my House of Commons pass and could say, "If there is any doubt, here is my pass. Will that help?" [HON. MEMBERS: "It is not a prescribed document."] Indeed. It would be of no assistance. The other person behind me may work for Securicor; he may be a member of the Ulster Defence Regiment, and could produce an equally valid piece of identification, but it would be refused.
We are told that one of the reasons why pieces of identification will be refused is that it is easy to duplicate them. I do not believe that any political party, including Sinn Fein, has the means of producing hundreds of thousands of identity cards simply for the purpose of stealing votes. In all our suggestions, we hope that the presiding officers will be given discretion. If he is concerned about the prescribed document because it is not updated, he should be able to consider some other evidence or proof to help him make a judgment, but as we read the Bill and as we interpret the advice that has been given to us in the documentation that accompanies it, that discretion is missing. Unless, at this early stage, we can build in some discretion, we believe that—
I should like to bring my hon. Friend back to a point made by the hon. Member for Ashford (Mr. Speed) because it is important to understand that the question of a request by a presiding officer for the signature of the person to see whether it complies with the prescribed document does not apply. In the document listed, for example the medical card or the Northern Ireland driving licence, there is no signature by the owner of those documents. Therefore, the question that was posed cannot arise. Does my hon. Friend agree about that?
I agree with my right hon. Friend. The presiding officer has no power to ask anyone to reproduce his signature anyway.
When I first looked at the Bill, which we received at fairly short notice last week, I concentrated almost entirely on clause 1, and I think most of my hon. Friends did as well. We omitted to give much attention to clause 3. Therefore, my comments were based on the belief that it was one thing or the other; that the effectiveness of the Bill depended on the effectiveness of clause 1. When clause 1 and clause 3 are taken together, it is arguable that clause 3 will put the teeth into the Bill. Clause 3 will contain the real deterrent to the vote-stealer. That being so, I hope that the Government will seriously consider how clause 1 can be adjusted to strengthen the position of the presiding officer and to give him the discretion which at present he will not have. By giving him that discretion and perhaps enabling him to probe the potential voter, we may enable him to expose that person to the real sanction which will be behind him—the police constable, who will now have substantial power to intervene at election times, even in the polling station. The most frustrated people in areas where vote-stealing has taken place have been the local police, who in the past have had to stand there while vote-stealing took place, unable to do anything about it.
The Government are not, as I thought last Thursday, standing firm on clause 1 and unable to move. I believe that clause 3 gives the back-up power. That being so, I hope that the Government will consider making some adjustment to clause 1, because we are to inflict on over 90 per cent. of the electorate in Northern Ireland conditions which I do not think that they deserve.
I welcome the Bill, which I believe is ideally designed for the correction of electoral abuses and cheating. It is of interest to the rest of the United Kingdom because we have problems too.
I am concerned about how easy it is to vote in Northern Ireland at present. The presiding officers must scrutinise the electoral roll far more carefully. I should like some clarification of paragraph (1A) in clause 1(2). Will everyone have to produce a document of identification? I believe that that is the case, but that the presiding officer has very little discretion once those documents are presented to him. I agree with the right hon. Member for South Down (Mr. Powell) about that.
In Leicester it has been known for unscrupulous people to follow the postman down the road, pick up electoral cards and present them at the polling station. The presiding officer must be shown certain documents which will show whether a person is who he says he is, but it is not difficult to get hold of such documents. The hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) has just shown me the Northern Ireland driving licence. It could easily be forged. Anyone could stick a photo on the driving licence. It is not embossed, and the licence that I have been shown is stapled.
The Official Unionist and Democratic Unionist parties believe in official identification cards. Even those could be forged, but they would be far better than some of the documents listed for showing to the presiding officer as guarantees of identity.
Many hon. Members may feel that the passport is an ideal form of identification. However, many people do not have passports. Recently someone in Leicester was required to present a passport as proof of identity in order to receive a DHSS payment. She reported the fact to one of the discrimination boards and was awarded over £100 in compensation, because it was considered that that was an intrusion into her liberty. I do not know what will happen if a member of the ethnic community in Northern Ireland finds himself in the same position. Discretion is far more important and, although the documents that we are considering would help to some extent, they are not exclusive. Listening to the debate last Thursday, I gathered from my hon. Friend the Minister that other plans might be examined. I hope that they will.
The presiding officer, provided that he is presented with the relevant documents, has no choice but to accept that a person is who he says he is. That is disconcerting and democratically unfair. The face of some Northern Ireland constituencies could be altered as a result. For that reason, I shall support the amendment and urge that the presiding officer be given more discretion.
What we really need is discretion for the presiding officer. If he is given some discretion, his role in the prevention of impersonation becomes much easier. If he is not given discretion, he will be as much use as a wooden post. He will simply not be able to ask the questions that need to be asked or to take the action the he believes needs to be taken.
If the presiding officer is not given the power that we believe he needs, a large and deserving section of the community will suffer. The people who will suffer from the application of this law will be the genuine electors. We must be clear that hon. Members and those who work to get us here are deeply interested in politics. Some of them eat, drink, sleep and breathe politics. The people who work at election time take an interest in what is going on.
What proportion of the population as a whole is deeply interested in politics? I suggest that it is small. The vast majority take an interest in politics only when the papers associated with a coming election pop through the door. It is surprising how many of them never read or even open the carefully produced election material. The result is that such folk have not read the warnings in the newspapers or those issued by the chief electoral officer as they think it is something to do with the election and put it on the mantelpiece behind the clock, into the fire or in the dustbin. On the day of the election, a large proportion of those who go out to vote—despite the best efforts of parties and officials—will arrive at the polling station not knowing that they must have a certain document. Some will have come out eagerly and willingly to do their duty for their party, others will have come out simply because the neighbours might talk about them if they did not and still others will have turned up simply because they intended to go shopping anyway and the polling station was on the way. Many are old and many are not used to dealing with officialdom. As all of us who have been patty workers know, they arrive in their hundreds not too sure what they are to do. They go into the polling station and are confronted by an official and the agents of various candidates. The voters get flustered. Those of us who have been at election counts have seen that reflected in votes when the boxes are tipped up. Such folk are then asked to produce a specified document of which they have never heard. They will then be told to go home and get it because there is nothing that the presiding officer can do under the law if they do not have it. Some may go to their party representatives outside the polling station, who will also tell them that they need a document.
The voter may say, "There is no way I can find it. Anyway, the children are coming home from school for tea"; or "My man is coming home from work and we are going out tonight. I am sorry, we shall not be back"; or "I don't feel like coming back after the way I was treated. I have been voting for the past 40 years". In Northern Ireland it seems like every year. Or the voter may say, "No one has ever asked me for these things before and now I'm suddenly being told to produce it. What is more, I am being told by the headmaster of the school who has taught my children and grandchildren. He knows me. I saw him at church last Sunday. He didn't tell me then that l had to produce my medical card. I don't know where it is, anyway."
The hon. Member for Foyle (Mr. Hume) represents a smaller area than many of us, although it is densely populated. He knows of the genuine difficulty of trying to contact every elector to tell him what the issues are and what he must do. That must be done on every doorstep in every constituency in the two or three weeks leading up to the election, and it will have to be done by various party workers. People are not willing to spend time reading all the bumf that they receive, least of all that from the electoral officer.
In those circumstances, vast numbers of electors will go away and not return to the polling station. The end result will be that the total percentage poll in all constituencies will decrease with an awful crash. I am not so sure that the Sinn Fein vote will drop so dramatically, which will enable it to say that, instead of winning only 10 per cent. of the poll, it has won 15 per cent., although its numbers are restricted.
The hon. Gentleman has deployed persuasively the arguments for accepting that it might be oppressive to ask ordinary people who do not spend their time reading political documents to produce one of a range of documents. Does he agree that that argument would apply a fortiori to requiring them to produce one specific document, for example, an identity card?
No, I do not believe that the same arguments would apply. An identity card would not be presented in the same way. It would be more widely publicised and every person would receive not one but two or three official documents telling him where he had to go with proof of his identity to collect his new identity card. People would not be as unaware of a single identity card which everyone had to have, carry and produce when asked. That is a totally different ball game. A citizen is not required by law to have a range of documents on his person. He may be asked for his driver's licence if he is driving his car, but he can produce it within two or three days. A single specified identity card is a totally different kettle of fish.
I turn now from the innocent, old grandmother or housewife who has appeared at the polling station and been refused entry to the organised person—organised for a militaristic campaign. The hon. Member for Foyle lives in Londonderry and knows some of the people who organise such things and their capabilities. He will agree that "militaristic" means very militaristic, highly organised, highly disciplined and prepared as though for battle. That is what they consider it to be. Those people will not be put off by officialdom. They have spent their lives fighting officialdom in every form in which it confronts them. They are organised for personation. They have probably sent one or two people through the polling station early in the day to find out what the position is. I shall return to the mechanics of personation as I understand them. They know precisely what to do. They will collect various specified documents, and, although I believe that the specified documents will restrict their movements to some extent, they will not eliminate personation completely. They will be able to carry on fairly effectively with their personation procedures.
From what has been said by several hon. Members in the House last Thursday and in interventions today, it appears that the general perception of people here is that the presiding officer has discretion. As has already been proven by my right hon. and hon. Friends, that is incorrect. The presiding officer does not have such discretion; therefore, the general perception upon which people have based their judgments of the Bill is wrong. Only when they get it clear in their minds as to what the Bill says will they begin to realise its shortcomings, and the difficulties that it poses for those who wish to cast their votes in Northern Ireland.
Even if an official suspects that the document does not belong to the person who presents it, he must hand over a ballot paper. That brings me to the present long stop on personation in the polling stations. The long stop is the candidates' representatives, who are there specifically to stop personation by their opponents or, for that matter, by anyone else. The candidate's agent is there to represent his candidate's interests, and he is allowed to use his knowledge and discretion—something that the presiding officer cannot do at present, and which he will not be able to do under the Bill.
To give an example, a queer-looking character walks into the polling station and says, "I am Johnny Smith, and here is my driving licence which shows that I am Johnny Smith." If it is a perfectly valid document, no matter how it has been obtained, the presiding officer must immediately hand over a ballot paper. If the candidate's agent knows his business and is alert, he can say, "Wait a minute; I do not think that you are Johnny Smith." He can then ask the presiding officer to put the statutory questions. That is an exercise of knowledge and discretion which the presiding officer cannot carry out.
The hon. Member for Foyle will remember that in the elections to the Assembly in his constituency one person was arrested for personation. He was arrested not because of the activities of the presiding officer, but because of the activities of one of my party's agents, who had an active register that showed that the individual apparently asking for the ballot paper had died three weeks before. His obituary notice had appeared in the newspaper, and his name was taken off the register. That is a measure of what has to be done to stop such activities in Northern Ireland, or, for that matter, elsewhere if personation were to be practised on a large scale in other parts of the United Kingdom.
Surely the problem is that there are insufficient polling agents, or what we call personation officers. Was not that an isolated incident which the officer was able to help with because the obituary notice was in the paper? The point is that the Bill will stop the need to have so many personation officers.
I could not agree. In some respects the role of the personation agent will be even more important now because the presiding officer does not have discretion. As I have already said, in certain circumstances the only long stop is the personation agent who can ask that thestatutory questions be put and then ask for individuals to be arrested if he is sure of their ground.
I know that the hon. Gentleman has taken considerable interest in Northern Ireland, but he clearly does not understand the amount of organisation that goes into stopping personation there. It is the practice to man as many polling booths as possible. Every booth, if it is humanly possible, is manned by at least one and, if possible, two or more named persons so that they will at least be able to come and go for their tea and keep a careful eye on who is coming in and out of the polling station.
The Committee will appreciate that the only folk who are of any real use at that work are those who live in the areas and who know the individuals on their section of the electoral register. It is not easy. It is difficult. It takes a lot of people. But if enough people are interested, it can be done because we do it every election.
That is all very well if we are talking about an isolated school in a rural area or the small village where there are perhaps only one or two booths and where the personation agents know between 75 and 90 per cent. of the individuals. A person who has lived in a small village or rural area all his life will naturally assume that a neighbour down the road whom he knows, knows him. In those circumstances, the possiblity of personation is greatly reduced. In fact it becomes almost impossible so long as the personation agents are prepared to do their job.
All people engaged in the work are warned of certain dangers before they begin. First, there is the rush hour. That is at tea time. At some time between 5 o'clock and 7.30 most people in Northern Ireland decide that they will go to the polling station having finished work either before or after they have their tea. All at once the polling agent, presiding officer and other officials are confronted with a steady stream of people passing rapidly through the polling station.
If there is only one box there will probably be two booths at which people mark their X or one, two, three or four—that abominable system. Many people come at that time. Polling agents must be alert at that point to make absolutely certain that they get the numbers right and that they react quickly to ensure that the doubtful folk are challenged.
That is one problem. The other problem arises early in the morning, as soon as the polling booths open. If someone is going to personate, he should try to organise a rush then, because perhaps not all the personation agents will be present and other folk may not have pulled their fingers out and got themselves organised. Consequently, a few people can be shoved through, and the presiding officer has no choice but to accept them. Under the Bill, he may well be a bit inhibited, but not very much.
There are a considerable number of Republicans in my constituency, and during the elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly there was a fair showing of them around the school gates. Inside, the polling booths were fairly well manned. On that day, they had a tremendous turn out. But it is a mixed community and there are enough folk there to stop large-scale personation. Consequently, in the morning of the 1983 general election none of them was there. In that school, the Sinn Fein representatives were mighty thin on the ground. I wondered where they were, but then I heard of the massive personation taking place and being attempted in the Foyle constituency, only 18 or 19 miles away. One wondered where they had been and what they had been up to, especially when they started to turn up in full force at about 3 pm. It seemed to me that their organisation was such that all their party workers had been shoved into one relatively small area to do what needed to be done for their candidates.
Is the hon. Gentleman arguing for greater discretion to be given to the presiding officer, or for what he describes as personation agents to be an official part of the electoral scene in Northern Ireland? He seemed to start by arguing for greater discretion for the presiding officer, but for the past few minutes he has concentrated almost entirely on the fact that perhaps personation officers should have a mandatory role that is written into the Bill so that they can play their part in elections in Northern Ireland. I am unclear as to the exact line that he is taking. However, I deplore the legislation and would like to see Northern Ireland legislation in line with the legislation to be enacted for the rest of the United Kingdom.
Not for the first time I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who has been such a friend of Northern Ireland over the years. I was simply trying to explain the mechanics of a large-scale personation campaign and the measures that need to be taken to combat it. It can be combated, but it takes a lot of hard work. I am not in favour of expanding the rights of personation agents because, after all, they live in the community and act as agents for their candidates or political parties. They are recognised and known by all concerned as such, and are expected by all parties to carry out their duties competently.
At present discretion is withheld from the presiding officer. But unless he is given the discretion that the personation agent possesses, there will be enormous problems for the ordinary elector wishing to cast his ballot. I have already mentioned the position in a small rural community, but let us take the other extreme, and the example of a large housing estate where there are eight or nine boxes.
Whenever tea time comes in such an area, there will be literally hundreds of enthusiastic electors arriving, many of them having been told that their old aunty, grannie or mum has been refused her ballot paper, and many of them will not be in the best of temper. What will the position be outside the polling station? What will happen when many Unionists arrive having heard reports from their families—this applies to nationalists, and no doubt the supporters of the hon. Member for Foyle will be in the forefront of the furious crowd—that amount to grossly inflated stories that have been passed on from the newspapers and the radio about the difficulties that voters are experiencing in casting their votes? They will be told that hundreds and perhaps thousands of electors are being refused ballot papers for a variety of reasons. The hon. Member for Foyle can expect a riot outside many polling stations if those circumstances prevail. That, I fear, is the natural consequence of many electors being refused their ballot paper in the highly charged atmosphere that is bound to arise on such an evening.
That must be prevented. That must not be allowed to happen or develop. I have always believed that prevention is better than cure, and so we must ensure that the law is not an ass and is, in fact, effective. Clause 3 will stop what was described on Thursday as benign personation. When those who have practised that form of voting are made aware of the effect of the Bill and their attention is drawn to the severe penalties to which they will be liable, that form of personation will be wiped out. That means that future personation will take the form of militaristic Sinn Fein personation, which is the most difficult practice to stop. However, we are all agreed that it must be stopped for the good of the Province. It must be stopped in a proper, workmanlike and efficient manner. It must be stopped by tying the individual to the name on the electoral register. That is the only way to stop it.
I fear that militaristic personation can be stopped only by the elector having a document which is not voluntarily in his possession and which everyone must carry. It must be supported by wider discretion being given to those who are officiating in the polling station. They must be allowed to use their own eyes and ears.
I think that we all appreciate that the Government want to take the heat and pressure off the presiding officers and other officials by saying to each electorate, "You must produce a paper that is neutral." It is thought that that will remove, for their own protection, discretion from presiding officers. That will not work and it cannot work. Presiding officers must be granted a larger measure of discretion—they are being paid to do the job and we expect them to do it—or they must be shown a piece of paper that everyone must carry, an identity card.
It is a great failing of human nature, especially in Northern Ireland, that we all want to find an easy way out. We all want to find a simple remedy. Many easy solutions have been tried in the past 15 years, but they have not worked. If personation is to be stopped, it must be brought to an end properly and effectively, or we shall be the laughing stock of the Republic. I want personation stopped. I want militaristic personation—the theft that has been carried out by the paramilitaries—stopped by this measure, and it must be done effectively. I fear that that will not happen as the Bill stands. If the Government go down the road that we have chosen, there is a good chance that much personation will be stopped and the Bill will be immeasurably improved.
I support the amendment tabled by the right hon. Member for South Down (Mr. Powell) and I shall make two brief observations. I understand the urgency with which the Government have introduced the Bill. They want it on the statute book in good time for the local government elections in May next year. That gives time for reflection, and Ministers will be considering what was said on Second Reading and in Committee.
The argument is strong for such a measure to apply to the United Kingdom as a whole. My hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Bruinvels) told us what happened in his constituency. We were not all aware of that. There has been a tendency for Ministers to underestimate the extent of personation on this side of the water. I wish that a Minister from the Home Office could be here, because lessons can be learnt. Advice can be given by different Departments concerned with the holding of elections.
A number of hon. Members have argued the case for identity cards being held by British citizens throughout the United Kingdom. We shall not achieve that overnight, but identity cards exist in the rest of the European Community and I do not understand why such heavy weather is made of the idea here. I cannot for the life of me understand why identity cards in the pockets of hon. Members, public servants, members of the armed forces and the police should not be added to the list of prescribed documents. Attention should be paid to the list of prescribed documents, because it is unsatisfactory.
The presiding officer must be trusted to exercise a degree of discretion. The presiding officer is often drawn from the teaching profession and is respected. We are talking about a man or woman of integrity who is well known in the neighbourhood and who knows the neighbourhood well. As the hon. Member for Londonderry, East (Mr. Ross) said, the use of such discretion can be difficult or dangerous, but that is no argument for depriving presiding officers of all discretion. He or she should have discretion when discharging the duties of a presiding officer.
In considering whether voters should produce evidence of their identity, it is not good enough to say that of course it is necessary because of the folklore that has grown up over the years.
The stories and jokes include the claim that in some Ulster constituencies candidates hold their final rallies at the local cemetery and that the personation experts of opposing parties hold eve-of-election meetings to decide which of their respective dead should rise for polling day.
We must look at the facts and decide logically what should be done. There is an old saying, "Vote early, vote often" in Ulster, and there are stories of busloads of personators coming in from the Republic to vote in border constituencies. It has been said that police raiding drinking clubs have found bundles of voting cards waiting to be distributed to willing and unwilling helpers.
It would help to consider the facts. The report of the chief electoral officer says that in the Assembly elections, 26 people were arrested for personation, mostly in Fermanagh and South Tyrone and in Belfast, North and Belfast, West. In the 1983 general election, 149 persons were arrested in Northern ireland and 108 were subsequently charged. A total of 762 tendered ballot papers were issued at the Assembly elections and 949 such papers were issued at last year's general election. More than half of the papers issued at the general election were handed out in Foyle and Belfast, West.
The constituencies that issued most tendered ballot papers at the general election were Foyle, with 386, Belfast, West, with 240, Belfast, North, with 111, and Newry and Armagh, with 55. Antrim, East and Upper Bann issued no tendered papers and North Down and Antrim, South issued two each.
The number of tendered ballot papers gives some idea of the number of stolen votes, but it is well known that not everyone who has had his or her vote stolen asks for a tendered ballot. It may be claimed that as the average Northern Ireland constituency has 60,000 electors, the number of tendered ballots issued in recent elections would have no effect on the results. However, the standing advisory commission on human rights points out that at the 1983 general election, four Northern Ireland constituencies were won with majorities of less than 3,000. In two constituencies, the majorities were less than 600, so tendered ballots could be significant there.
The figures for tendered ballots—191 at the 1973 Assembly elections, 762 at the 1982 Assembly elections and 949 at the 1983 general election—seem to show that the Sinn Fein vote could have included 20 per cent. personated votes. At the time of the two by-elections in Fermanagh and South Tyrone in 1981, when Sinn Fein had majorities of 1,446 and 2,230, it was said that the number of personated votes could have been as high as 4,000.
The folklore cannot be proved, and we should not regard the whole of Northern Ireland in the same way. Problems exist only in some areas. It is unfortunate that because of what is happenning in some parts of the Province we have to consider legislation that may disenfranchise some voters. We should not allow this House, the democratic process in the United Kingdom, to be influenced by a bogus party such as Sinn Fein, so that we disenfranchise any citizen of the United Kingdom. Any legislation for any part of the Kingdom should be the same for all parts of the Kingdom.
Having studied the figures, we could arrive at the conclusion at which the Government have obviously arrived in bringing forward the Bill. Legislation should be brought forward because it is right to do so and not because of pressure from those who believe in the bomb and the gun rather than the ballot box. I support the amendment which, if carried, would clear the way for later and more effective amendments.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the Bill could influence elections in Northern Ireland in a worse manner than personation may affect them? People who legitimately should be allowed to vote will not be allowed to vote, so there is a false and undemocratic result in certain constituencies.
I agree with that, and it is something of which we are very much afraid. A gainfully employed man would have no benefit book, no pension book; he may not drive so he has no driving licence; he has no passport because he does not go on holiday, and his medical card bears a former address. How does he obtain a vote at the polling station? He does not have any of the prescribed documents.
If we make the mistake of bringing forward weak legislation, which will make the position worse, we will be in a more difficult position than when we began this process. That would be an awful mistake for this illustrious House of Commons to make. The responsibility that will be placed upon the presiding officer is great, and we wonder about the wisdom of putting such pressure on people who do a magnificent job on polling day. We would probably end up with a much lower vote if the measure is introduced.
There is no way to identify a voter either by age or sex except by inference from the name on the register. The Government should consider that.
I support the sentiments of the hon. Member for Antrim, South (Mr. Forsythe) and his right hon. and hon. Friends from his party who have spoken to this group of amendments.
In principle, the argument whether we should have identity cards has in the past been finely balanced. I believe that the use of an identity card throughout the United Kingdom would now be more acceptable than it was five or 10 years ago, bearing in mind the nature of the documents that we carry with us from time to time. The weakest argument for identity cards that I heard tonight was that it was common in all other member states of the European Community. There are now other and stronger arguments. It is clear that that alternative is not available to meet the Government's predicament in the local government elections next year, and we cannot clasp it to our breasts tonight as a saving grace.
It seems to me that in principle it would be best if that which we propose for Northern Ireland with regard to personation were to pass the litmus test it was applied at the same time throughout the rest of the United Kingdom. I hope that my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State will talk to his Home Office colleagues and tell them of the view that has been expressed tonight that legislation on personation might usefully be spread to the rest of the United Kingdom.
It seems that one of the problems, whether in Northern Ireland or in the United Kingdom as a whole, is the disparity between documents in Northern Ireland and other parts of Britain. The driving licence—
On a point of order, Mr. Walker. The driving licence — one of the documents that we are discussing—is a prescribed document. I am suggesting to my hon. Friend that if the driving licence in Northern Ireland, which is a prescribed document, were more in line with the driving licence in the rest of the United Kingdom, some of the drawbacks legitimately mentioned by Opposition Members would not—
I am on the horns of a dilemma, but shall keep in order, and I am sorry if I offend my hon. Friend in so doing.
There needs to be an answer other than the one contained in the Bill as it is before us. The answer seems to relate to a combination of factors. The giving of more discretion to the presiding officer is an important ingredient which has to be considered. Indeed, in his speech on Second Reading the Secretary of State said as much when he said that the statutory questions which presiding officers could currently put to prospective voters are very limited indeed.
My right hon. Friend explained what the two questions were and went on to say:
No inquiry as to the right of any person to vote, other than the above questions, may be made. The voter must not be asked, for example, to spell his name. Nor may a voter be asked if he has been bribed or whether he has done anything which, if he does vote, will render him liable to a prosecution."—[Official Report, 15 November 1984; Vol. 67, c. 811.]
Giving extra discretion to a presiding officer to ask further specific questions or making a general statutory provision to allow that officer to ask any question he wishes if he has a reasonable doubt that the person presenting himself as a voter is not the voter on the electoral roll may involve a discretionary — not a mandatory — power to ask the prospective voter to produce any range of documents or any documents which the presiding officer thinks the voter should have if he is the person he claims to be. A discretionary, rather than mandatory, production of documents may well be an important ingredient in sorting out our dilemma.
My hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Sir J. Biggs-Davison) talked about the prestige of the presiding officer, and I concur with his view. Should we consider arming presiding officers with not just statutory provisions but information on past examples of how other people have perpetrated impersonation? Should we not train presiding officers in what to look for in matters of impersonation. What training is given to presiding officers?
I ask my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State to consider seriously taking the Bill away and having further discussions about the detail before we proceed. I ask him to consider again whether the precise details in this part of the Bill meet the principle for which I was glad to vote on 15 November.
I thank the hon. Member for Billericay (Mr. Proctor) for explaining so clearly the worries of some hon. Members about the implementation of the Bill. I should like to think that before the debate concludes the Under-Secretary of State will give us an understanding that the Government are now prepared to take this measure back and return on Report with improved drafting so that we are better able to improve the Bill. I echo the point made by the hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Mr. Bell) on Second Reading, when he said that some of us were concerned lest we are throwing out the baby with the bath water.
The amendment deals with two particular points: first, it pleads for more discretion to be given to the presiding officer; and, secondly, it tries to remove the difficulty some of us face concerning the use of mandatory documents.
During his presentation speech on 15 November the Secretary of State turned down the concept of an identity document, because some people may refuse to use such a document. It would still be valid for the same approach to be used in the Bill. It might be argued in law that instead of having to produce one specific document there should be an alternative. It is an infringement of the right to exercise the franchise to say that someone should be on the electoral register and be in possession of whatever might be stipulated.
The Opposition are keen to see some means of strengthening the role of the presiding officer. While in the past we had men and women who had resided for many years in a community and knew the general movement of people in the community, there have now been changes of presiding officers and, as the hon. Member for Billericay said, they are insufficiently trained. They are not as au fait with the community as some of their predecessors. Therefore, if there are to be documents to identify the would-be voter they must be reliable.
When the Under-Secretary replied on 15 November he said that he was advised that
the wording has the effect not of asking the presiding officer blindly to follow the evidence of the document but of enabling him to apply his common sense and judgment in coming to a conclusion whether in practice there is a reasonable doubt"—[Official Report, 15 November 1984; Vol. 67, c. 877.]
I wonder who gave the advice. Was it those who drafted the wording? I was reminded of an old adage that counsel's opinion was only an opinion until it was tested in law. There is an element of doubt in the interpretation given to us in the Minister's reply when one considers the mandatory prescription contained in the Bill. It is the document that raises the doubt. Some of the documents that have been prescribed would undoubtedly raise doubts. How will the presiding officer satisfy himself that the person who has come to vote is the person that he or she claims to be?
I ask that further consideration be given to how we can strengthen the electoral process without hindering people who wish to vote. Those of us who have argued that the matter should be dealt with in the context of the United Kingdom as a whole are on strong ground.
As I understand it, we shall shortly be having the Representation of the People Bill. This matter could be taken on board at that time. It is being brought in now so that subordinate legislation can be introduced to deal with the Northern Ireland local government elections in May.
This is a fundamental issue. Every citizen of the United Kingdom who exercises his franchise in an election for this House should be treated the same. I believe that that is inherent in our national identity. I hoped that the cry from the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Sir J. Biggs-Davison) would have had a more permanent effect because I thought that I saw an apparition from the Home Office. We should then be able to legislate on the franchise for the nation as a whole.
Therefore, I urge the Minister to give us an assurance that the Government are prepared, having heard the arguments, none of which has yet been refuted, to think again and to come back on Report with something that would be more workable in Northern Ireland.
What a topsy-turvy world we live in, where the Government bypass the logical and opt instead for the near impossible, and where, instead of punishing those who are guilty of personation, they make it more difficult for people who genuinely want to vote.
The logical solution to the problem is, first, to recognise, as hon. Members have in the debate and on Second Reading, that there are two distinct types of personation. There is the personation of the dead and the non-voter, which is common to all parts of the United Kingdom. The hon. Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Bruinvels) said that it happened in his constituency, so if the Secretary of State believes that the Bill is necessary for Northern Ireland for that type of personation it will become the Elections (Northern Ireland and Leicester) Bill, because there seems to be a significant problem there, too.
The second type of personation concerns those who are guilty of vote stealing. They grab the votes of those who they are aware will come out to vote later, and they get there before that person can claim his rightful vote. It is clear, as the hon. Member for Londonderry, East (Mr. Ross) said, that such personation is a militaristic campaign.
The first type of personation can be dealt with by having more stringent punishment of those who are found guilty. That would dissuade such personators from committing that offence. With regard to the militaristic campaign, there is only one way that the Government will ever deal with Sinn Fein, and that is to face up to the reality that it, being an integral part of the Irish Republican Army, must be proscribed. Let the Government be under no illusion. Sinn Fein is under the army command of the IRA. It is every bit as much a part of the IRA movement as the people who shoot on the streets.
Therefore, the way to deal with Sinn Fein is not to try to make life more difficult for the genuine voter, but to deal with that organisation by way of proscription. My argument that the Government are making it more difficult for the genuine voter was amply demonstrated by the hon. Member for Londonderry, East, who put each one of us in the place of a person coming to vote in the circumstances that would pertain on polling day in Northern Ireland. Having learnt that mother or grandmother had been turned away, angry people turn up at polling stations wanting to know why and the circumstances in which they were denied their vote.
That might cause a mild ripple in Leicester. I can assure the Secretary of State that it would cause significantly more than that in Northern Ireland. I warn him now, as I have on many other occasions, though my warnings may not be heeded, that the polling day in May will be a most interesting experience for him if he persists with the Bill, unamended. I trust that he will not succumb to that undoubted folly.
It is the view of hon. Members on both sides of the House that personation must be tackled. We do not run away from the need to do so, though unfortunately it appears that the hon. Member for Foyle (Mr. Hume) has done just that tonight. However, those who believe that we have a duty to ensure that people can claim their vote will address the business that we are now considering in Committee. We want steps to be taken to make personation more difficult.
Of course I agree wholly with amendment No. 2 because it is identical to amendment No. 18, tabled by my hon. Friends and myself. I had therefore hoped that the right hon. Member for South Down (Mr. Powell), who introduced amendment No. 1, would concentrate more on amendment No. 1 than on amendment No. 2. However, I gathered from what he said that the two amendments are closely linked. The second amendment can stand on its own, but the first needs to be linked with the second if it is to be effective.
The effect of amendment No. 2 cannot be denied. It is all very well for the hon. Member for Foyle to say that the presiding officer or clerk should use his common sense and should be able to use the evidence of his eyes, which may suggest to him that the person claiming to be the hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. McCusker) is indeed the hon. Gentleman—who has been much abused in this debate. Unfortunately, the Bill, unamended, would not allow that degree of flexibility to the presiding officer. Although the presiding officer may be acquainted with the hon. Member for Upper Bann, he may not use the evidence of his eyes. He may say, "Hello, Harold. I hope you are having a good polling day"; but if the hon. Gentleman has moved four times since the medical certificate was issued the presiding officer cannot accept it and the hon. Gentleman will be denied his vote. The Government cannot say, therefore, that the franchise is not involved.
It is ludicrous that a presiding officer who knows an individual by sight—and this often happens, as most presiding officers are members of the local community—may not use the evidence of his own eyes, as well as the documentation, in awarding a ballot paper to the would-be voter. I do not think that that can have been the Government's intention. I hope that the Minister will be willing to say so, and will show willingness to make changes.
If the Government say that the presiding officer may use the evidence of his eyes, they must say that he can use it negatively as well as positively. They will have to vest in the presiding officer a presumption to say on sight that someone is not the person who appears on the electoral register. The attribution of that form of common sense will carry the Government a great deal further than they imagine.
Yes, and, although I have dealt so far only with the evidence of the eyes, there is also the obvious question that the document may name "James H. McCusker" and the electoral register may give the name as "Harold McCusker". It might be proper for the presiding officer to ask the prospective voter, "Does 'H' stand for Harold, and is there some reason why the name 'James' is not included in the electoral register?" before he was satisfied that a ballot paper should be produced. However, under the Bill, the presiding officer may not do so. He can use only the documentation in front of him. The Government have landed in an unholy mess by going for a prescribed list of documents. There is only one way in which the job can be done properly, neatly, officially and fairly, and that is to introduce a purpose-made identity card. Of the list of documents given in the notes on clauses, one has a photograph whereas another does not one has an address whereas another does not, so it would be right for every elector to have the same type of documentation as required by the Government.
As the problem of impersonation is not unique to Northern Ireland, provision should be made for the whole of the United Kingdom. Difficult though I should find it if one hon. Member could enter these doors having been elected by voters who subscribe to one list of rules and regulations while another hon. Member's electors had a less onerous list of regulations, I should be prepared to accept that if the Government were to accept purpose-made identity cards.
I therefore have some difficulty in accepting amendment No. 1 because I do not think it allows for such an eventuality should the Government have a Damascus road experience. I shall therefore wait with interest to hear what the Minister says to see whether such a proposition is even faintly possible. If he gives me that element of hope, I shall be happy to vote against the amendment. If he does not, I shall support both amendments.
We have had a wide-ranging debate on the narrow point of the discretion which might be exercised by presiding officers in judging whether somebody is the person he presents himself to be when asking for a ballot paper.
The Committee will nevertheless expect me to deal with some of the more substantial points that have been raised. The Government do not have a closed mind. I have listened with care to many of the issues that have been raised. If it is possible to clarify more closely the intention of the Bill by legislation, the Government will not shirk from doing so. We shall consider what has been said today, and we are prepared to discuss the matter more widely. However, I believe that the principle upon which this part of the Bill is founded, the intention of the Bill and its wording meeting the questions that have been put by several right hon. and hon. Members.
I hope that I shall not be out of order in responding to one particular point. As I understand it, amendments have been ruled out of order because they deal with whether the Bill should be extended to the whole of the United Kingdom. Several hon. Members have said that it should be, so perhaps I should respond to that view. It is not for me to say whether it should be, but I repeat what I said on Second Reading. No evidence has been presented to my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary which suggests that there has been the scale of personation and electoral abuse on this side of the water which it is commonly accepted exists in the Province of Northern Ireland.
The right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) mentioned a leading article in The Times, but he did not mention the leader in The Daily Telegraph, of 7 November which concluded an assessment of the Bill thus:
The idea is to make voters carry passports or other means of identification (but not including death certificates). This is a good idea; admittedly, it involves treating Northern Ireland as different from other parts of the United Kingdom, but in this respect it most certainly is.
Coming from a newspaper which has consistently said that Northern Ireland ought to be treated in most respects on a par with the rest of the United Kingdom, I think that we should take that judgment seriously.
Since 1981 there has been widespread electoral abuse in Northern Ireland. On Second Reading all parties agreed that that was the case. The solution that electors should have to produce a document to obtain a ballot paper is central to the Bill's approach. It is mandatory. However, it is not new. It has not been sprung on the House during the past few days or weeks. All parties have know about it for two and a half years.
In the intervening period we have continued to receive representations, including some from the Official Unionist party, that that approach was in line with its thinking. I have answered at least one parliamentary question on the subject. I have been quoted in public print, as was my right hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Mr. Prior), as saying that we intended to produce a Bill on these matters. No one interested in the question of personation in Northern Ireland could have been under a misapprehension about our intention to introduce legislation that would require the production of one of a range of documents before a ballot paper could be issued. Every opportunity was available to representatives and parties to make the kind of points which are only now being raised.
Will the Minister be so obliging as to allow my right hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Molyneaux) and myself to refresh our memories of the document which is two and a half years old, which shows that a mandatory document would be part of the Government's proposals? Will he be helpful enough to do that?
I shall not weary the Committee by reading the letter. It showed the Government's intention to say that electors should have to produce one of a range of listed documents to obtain a ballot paper. The list then was somewhat longer than that which is included in the Bill because we have sought to achieve the balance, which I outlined on Second Reading, between disfranchising some electors and having a range of documents sufficiently tight to deter and inhibit personation, which is the abuse that we seek to tackle. If the right hon. Gentleman will read that letter from my right hon. Friend the Member for Waveney, he will see that the underlying principle of the Bill was set out then and that every opportunity was given for people to raise matters. Indeed, representatives of the right hon. Gentleman's party accepted that principle as recently as 12 months ago.
We are debating the discretion which presiding officers should have in the view of some hon. Members. On Second Reading I stated why I thought it was wrong for presiding officers to have that discretion. I pointed out, in particular, that presiding officers and the chief electoral officer would not wish presiding officers to have such power. If they were to have that power, it might be difficult to recruit members of the public who offer to do that service now to come forward and provide it in the new circumstances. I shall deal with that point in more detail in a moment. It underlines our fundamental approach to the problem.
The hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. McCusker) mentioned the Standing Advisory Commission on Human Rights and its change of view. It is common knowledge that during its study of the problem it contacted and took evidence from many groups in Northern Ireland. The commission came to the conclusion that the approach which the Government have now outlined in the Bill warranted testing. I was frank with the House on Second Reading in recognising — the right hon. Member for South Down quoted my words—that we were in a sense in uncharted waters. I would go no further than to say that the Government's approach warrants testing. We must try to get the balance right between not disfranchising genuine electors and inhibiting and deterring those who seek to subvert the democratic system.
The hon. Member for Upper Bann and several others sought to reduce the argument about people presenting themselves to the presiding officer to the level of absurdity. I remind the Committee that the powers in the Bill, and the lack of discretion of the presiding officers, which are central to the amendments that we are discussing, go hand in hand with several other matters. There is a practice in Northern Ireland for the parties to appoint polling agents, or personation agents as they are commonly called in the Province.
The RUC has the right under the Bill, which it did not previously have — the hon. Member for Upper Bann recognised this—to arrest those who are in possession of documents for the purpose of personation. If someone arrives at a polling station and represents himself to be someone whom he is not and has a document which seeks to represent him as that person, he is committing an offence. The penalties are up to two years' imprisonment or an unlimited fine—not insubstantial penalties—and for the first time the RUC has the right to intervene and to arrest those who seek to personate. That, marching hand in hand with the continuing right of the parties and their representatives at the polling stations to challenge, is a substantial deterrent to would-be personators.
I shall not deal this evening with identity cards, which were mentioned by the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) and others, because they will be the subject of other amendments which the Committee will consider in due course.
The hon. Member for Antrim, South (Mr. Forsythe) asked us to examine the facts of personation. I do not wish to dwell at length on the points made on Second Reading, but in my reply to the debate I set out the Government's best judgment on personation in Northern Ireland. We are convinced that the 149 arrests for personation at the 1983 general election were only the tip of the iceberg. Translated into figures for arrests in Great Britain, that would have meant about 5,000 or 6,000 arrests. The Home Office does not collect statistics for personation in Great Britain, so rarely does it occur, but I am sure that the number would not reach double figures. I accept that it is a serious problem in Northern Ireland and that it must be dealt with.
The Government are right to tackle it in this way, understanding that we are in uncharted waters, and that we shall wish to reconsider these matters in due course.
The Minister is covering ground which was discussed in detail on Second Reading. Can he now assess the percentage of the votes cast for Sinn Fein which were personated votes in places such as west Belfast and the west bank of Londonderry? Those are the places where the personation ratio would appear to be highest, because that is where the personators find it easiest to operate. We can forget about the rest of the Province, where the percentage was relatively small.
I recognised on Second Reading that the problem was restricted to some constituencies. I sought to answer the point by saying that it was impossible to deal with an area smaller than the political entity of Northern Ireland. One cannot restrict an examination to anything smaller than that. I hope that the Committee agrees with that.
I should tell my hon. Friend the Member for Billericay (Mr. Proctor) that the chief electoral officer is provided annually with funds to provide training for electoral staff, and especially to provide training in the methods for dealing with electoral abuse. A training programme has been developed, and, in the circumstances of the new legislation, special emphasis will be placed on training.
The hon. Gentleman has just said that money was provided for the training of staff. Which staff? Is it the regular staff, or the temporary staff in offices, or the presiding officers?
All those who undertake the duties are included, in particular the presiding officers who come forward and exercise the powers.
The hon. Member for Londonderry, East (Mr. Ross) painted a touching picture of teachers in schools and people coming in unaware of the requirements of this legislation. I can assure him and the Committee that before any requirement comes into operation for the local government elections in May 1985 there will be a widespread advertising campaign in which I hope the political parties in Northern Ireland will play a responsible and active part in letting people know of the necessity to turn up at the polling station with one of the prescribed documents. By the time we come to those elections nobody in Northern Ireland will be in ignorance of the need to turn up and obtain his ballot paper by the production of one of the documents.
Will the Minister address his mind to the fact that, despite massive propaganda, press statements and television advertisements, when proportional representation was brought into the Province there were still many lost votes—and there still are? Is the Minister telling us that just because of a few advertisements in the press or on television the old-age pensioner will arrive with all the documents in his pocket? Does the Minister really ask us to take that seriously?
I hope that, as we prepare our campaign to alert people to the need to produce the documents, we can look back at previous campaigns and perhaps learn some lessons from those to make this one as effective as possible. I hope that we shall be able to reach everybody in Northern Ireland and alert them to the need to produce not all the documents but at least one of them when they turn up to ask for their ballot paper.
Will the Minister give an assurance that the documents will be listed on the polling card when the instruction is given to the registered voter that he has a vote and where he is to cast it? Can he assure us that those documents will be printed on that card so that the voter will know that he needs to bring those documents with him?
That is an interesting idea and I shall certainly consider it sympathetically. We want to use every opportunity to alert people to this need.
I understand the concern of the right hon. Member for South Down and his hon. Friends that the procedures for obtaining a ballot paper do not allow presiding officers or clerks to investigate further if there is a reasonable doubt that the person applying for the ballot paper is the person lawfully entitled to that paper. However, some at least of the right hon. Gentleman's worries, and those of his colleagues, are based on a misconception, namely, that the procedure set out in the Bill requires the presiding officer to follow blindly—as one hon. Member said a wooden post might do—the evidence of the prescribed document produced for inspection.
The right hon. Gentleman suggested that if the document produced gives a different address, for example, from that given as the qualifying address in the register, it would be a defiance of the natural meaning of the words in the rules to deny that that raised a reasonable doubt as to the elector's identity.
I said on Second Reading that I did not believe that to be so. It is by no means unknown for people to change their address. It is also common knowledge that documents such as medical cards are liable to be out of date, at least in terms of the address on them. Much will depend on the document in question and the circumstances of particular cases. The actual address on the document is likely to be of less consequence than the person's name, which is central to the question of identification.
We on the Opposition Benches have no axe to grind other than to get the Bill right. We have listened with an open mind to the debate. I have already said that we believe that if there is no doubt in the mind of the presiding officer, it cannot be said that the document raises one. However, a problem arises from the statutory restrictions on the questions which the presiding officer can ask. Will the Government at least reconsider that point before they return to the Committee?
Will my hon. Friend address himself to the question of forgery, in the sense that the passport or driving licence could have been forged, and so the presiding officer would need to ask certain specific questions?
I have already made it clear today that we may not have the perfect answer.
Another option is identity cards, but whatever view one might take in the longer term, it would be impossible to have a system of identity cards in operation in time for the local government elections in May 1985. In any case, the introduction of identity cards would raise questions which the whole House would wish to consider carefully before going down that road.
We have tried to strike a balance with documents which are issued by the Government and are official, but: of course one has to consider the possibility of forgery by those who have sought in the past to subvert the democratic system by personation and other means of electoral abuse, and the penalties that exist.
Another example that has been raised tonight is that of a document in which the name of the elector is inaccurately given although the presiding officer knows the person before him to be the elector named. In the unlikely event that the name on the document is entirely different from that on the register, the rules, as amended, will prevent the presiding officer from handing over a ballot paper. But if the names are similar but not the same, the test involved in the amended rules does not prevent a presiding officer from drawing on his own knowledge.
The test is a subjective one. In particular, if the presiding officer knows that the person standing before him is the elector in question, it would seem to me virtually impossible for the document then to raise a doubt in the mind of that officer as to the elector's identity. I said as much quite clearly on Second Reading, and I am still advised that the words in the Bill enable that subjective judgment to be made. If the presiding officer knew who the elector was, it would be impossible for the document to raise a doubt in his mind.
Then, indeed, personation agents and police officers will be present who might well be able to intervene at that point. Given the penalties available, it would be a bold personator who ran that sort of risk.
In formulating the test the Government have done their best to avoid—for the reasons that I outlined on Second Reading—the general discretionary power provided by these amendments. The Government believe that this discretionary power would be undesirable, would draw presiding officers directly into the inter-party electoral contest, and would inevitably lead to significant variations of judgment and practice across the Province. It would lead to allegations of partisan bias and provide a great temptation to those seeking to undermine the democratic process to influence the exercise of that discretion.
I think that it would be useful to draw my remarks to a conclusion.
As I said when I began, we do not have a closed mind. I have listened carefully to everything that has been said, both in this debate and on Second Reading. I am certainly prepared to consider whether, short of giving a general discretion—which would be extremely damaging and subject to the sort of abuse that I have outlined—it might be possible to revise the wording of the subsection in the light of the explanation that I have given.
A debate in this place is always instructive, and so it has been tonight. It has become clear to us all that we might be tackling the problem from the wrong end. By depriving presiding officers of even limited discretion we are requiring every elector to produce a document, be it what it may at the end of the Bill's progress, as a basic requirement. We are thereby organising and arranging, in a sense, the maximum degree of confusion and congestion in polling stations. If the presiding officer can be given even limited discretion, he can, if he wishes, subject those of whom he has suspicions to the most stringent tests. He will thereby avoid the hideous problems, which we all foresee, in the final hours of polling.
On behalf of my right hon. and hon. Friends, I assure the Minister that we support the principle behind the Bill. We differ solely on the mechanism to be employed. I think that he knows from personal experience that we are sincere in seeking to improve the measure and to co-operate with the Government. We are delighted that the official Opposition are in the same position.
On Second Reading I had the distinct impression that Ministers, having listened to the debate, were prepared on behalf of the Government to take a flexible approach to the crunch issues. The Secretary of State, in introducing the Second Reading debate, said that he and his colleagues would listen carefully to what was said then and at subsequent stages
so as to produce arrangements that best meet Northern Ireland's particular circumstances." — [Official Report, 15 November 1984; Vol. 67, c. 817.]
I should like to think that that is still the Government's position. The Minister of State replied by saying that it would be sensible to be able to give the Committee a considered view of the Government's position before embarking on the remaining stages. I had earlier suggested that it would be unfair and unrealistic to expect the Government to review their position within the 120 hours or five days which have elapsed between Second Reading and Committee.
However, my right hon. and hon. Friends still feel that we have a duty through the amendment to press the case for all legitimate electors. As we feel that the issues are so central to the Bill, we must demonstrate our concern by dividing the Committee. I hope that other Members will join my right hon. and hon. Friends in supporting the amendment.
|Division No. 13]||[12.38 am|
|Beggs, Roy||Scott, Nicholas|
|McCrea, Rev William||Smyth, Rev W. M. (Belfast S)|
|McCusker, Harold||Taylor, Rt Hon John David|
|Maginnis, Ken||Walker, Cecil (Belfast N)|
|Molyneaux, Rt Hon James|
|Nicholson, J.||Tellers for the Ayes:|
|Paisley, Rev Ian||Mr. William Ross and|
|Powell, Rt Hon J. E. (S Down)||Mr. Clifford Forsythe.|
|Robinson, P. (Belfast E)|
|Batiste, Spencer||Cope, John|
|Beaumont-Dark, Anthony||Currie, Mrs Edwina|
|Bellingham, Henry||Douglas-Hamilton, Lord J.|
|Boscawen, Hon Robert||Dover, Den|
|Brown, M. (Brigg & Cl'thpes)||Durant, Tony|
|Carlisle, Kenneth (Lincoln)||Fenner, Mrs Peggy|
|Carttiss, Michael||Forsyth, Michael (Stirling)|
|Cash, William||Forth, Eric|
|Chalker, Mrs Lynda||Franks, Cecil|
|Conway, Derek||Fraser, Peter (Angus East)|
|Freeman, Roger||Moate, Roger|
|Gale, Roger||Moynihan, Hon C.|
|Garel-Jones, Tristan||Murphy, Christopher|
|Gregory, Conal||Neale, Gerrard|
|Griffiths, Peter (Portsm'th N)||Nicholls, Patrick|
|Ground, Patrick||Norris, Steven|
|Hamilton, Hon A. (Epsom)||Page, Richard (Herts SW)|
|Hamilton, Neil (Tatton)||Parris, Matthew|
|Hanley, Jeremy||Penhaligon, David|
|Hargreaves, Kenneth||Percival, Rt Hon Sir Ian|
|Harvey, Robert||Powell, William (Corby)|
|Hawksley, Warren||Powley, John|
|Hayward, Robert||Rathbone, Tim|
|Heddle, John||Rhys Williams, Sir Brandon|
|Henderson, Barry||Roe, Mrs Marion|
|Hickmet, Richard||Ross, Stephen (Isle of Wight)|
|Hind, Kenneth||Rowe, Andrew|
|Holt, Richard||Rumbold, Mrs Angela|
|Hooson, Tom||Sackville, Hon Thomas|
|Howarth, Alan (Stratf'd-on-A)||Sainsbury, Hon Timothy|
|Howarth, Gerald (Cannock)||Sayeed, Jonathan|
|Hubbard-Miles, Peter||Scott, Nicholas|
|Hughes, Simon (Southward)||Shelton, William (Streatham)|
|Hume, John||Skeet, T. H. H.|
|Hunt, David (Wirral)||Soames, Hon Nicholas|
|Hunter, Andrew||Speed, Keith|
|Hurd, Rt Hon Douglas||Speller, Tony|
|Jones, Gwilym (Cardiff N)||Spencer, Derek|
|Jones, Robert (W Herts)||Stanbrook, Ivor|
|Kellett-Bowman, Mrs Elaine||Stern, Michael|
|Kennedy, Charles||Stevens, Lewis (Nuneaton)|
|Key, Robert||Stewart, Allan (Eastwood)|
|King, Roger (B'ham N'field)||Stewart, Andrew (Sherwood)|
|Knight, Gregory (Derby N)||Sumberg, David|
|Knowles, Michael||Taylor, Teddy (S'end E)|
|Lang, Ian||Terlezki, Stefan|
|Latham, Michael||Thompson, Donald (Calder V)|
|Leigh, Edward (Gainsbor'gh)||Thompson, Patrick (N'ich N)|
|Lester, Jim||Thorne, Neil (Ilford S)|
|Lightbown, David||Tracey, Richard|
|Lilley, Peter||Twinn, Dr Ian|
|Lloyd, Peter, (Fareham)||van Straubenzee, Sir W.|
|Lord, Michael||Viggers, Peter|
|Lyell, Nicholas||Walden, George|
|Macfarlane, Neil||Wallace, James|
|Maclean, David John||Wardle, C. (Bexhill)|
|Major, John||Watson, John|
|Malins, Humfrey||Watts, John|
|Marland, Paul||Wells, Bowen (Hertford)|
|Mates, Michael||Wolfson, Mark|
|Mather, Carol||Wood, Timothy|
|Maude, Hon Francis||Yeo, Tim|
|Merchant, Piers||Tellers for the Noes:|
|Meyer, Sir Anthony||Mr. Michael Neubert and|
|Miller, Hal (B'grove)||Mr. Mark Lennox-Boyd.|
|Mills, Iain (Meriden)|
On a point of order, Mr. Armstrong. Is it possible for you to take official cognisance of the fact that the Parliamentary Under-Secretary voted in each Lobby, having, no doubt, desired to give an example of personation?
To report Progress and ask leave to sit again.—[Mr. Scott.]