I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.
At every stage of the Bill so far, the Government have been at pains to emphasise its experimental and tentative nature. The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, who is now seated at the Dispatch Box, has referred to the Government, in piloting this legislation, as sailing uncharted waters. Both he and his right hon. Friend have been very specific. For example, in Committee the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State said:
We now have this new scheme, and we are right to test that.
It is essentially an experimental operation. Later he said:
This is new territory." — [Official Report, 28 November 1984; Vol. 68, c. 1022–6.]
The Secretary of State himself was very specific in acknowledging the readiness of the Department and the Government to reconsider the provisions of the Bill in the light of the experience of its working. I remind the House of the words that he used. He said:
We believe…that the scheme in the Bill is the soundest one that can be put before the Committee at this stage. If, in the light of later experience, it proves to need change, it should be changed. All hon. Members who represent Northern Ireland constituencies will be alert to that need and to that experience.
With reference to the amendment then before the Committee, he continued:
However, we believe now, having listened to all the arguments with care, that the scheme in the Bill is preferable to the one in the amendment."—[Official Report, 28 November 1984; Vol. 68, c. 992.]
I emphasise the undertaking—for such it is—of the Secretary of State that if, in the light of later experience, the measure now before us proves to need change it should be changed. I cast no doubt or aspersion whatever on the candour of the Secretary of State and his colleague when they made those statements. I am sure that they are entirely sincere in saying that if, after a test of one, two or three elections, the legislation in its present form is found to be defective it will be changed.
It is one thing, however, for the Secretary of State to make that assertion in all good faith in the House in 1984, but it is quite a different thing for the same Secretary of State or perhaps another—one never knows, once the regular two years have elapsed it may well be a different Secretary of State—to say to his colleagues in 1986, "I am sorry to have to admit to you that we made rather a mess of that legislation in 1984", to explain that there were serious defects that had caused grave embarrassment to the Government in the working of the Elections (Northern Ireland) Act 1984 and to ask for the Cabinet's assent and the assistance of the legislation committee of Cabinet to bring forward an Elections (Northern Ireland) (Amendment) Bill. I do not know what kind of reception he will get from the Leader of the House at that time or what kind of handling he will get in the legislation committee, but it is not the kind of experience for which Ministers readily volunteer — to go back to their colleagues, admit to having made a number of bosh shots and to ask for a further legislative slot in the next Session to put things right.
My right hon. and hon. Friends and I wish to save the Secretary of State from any such embarrassment. Our desire to do so is the more lively in that our perception of the defects of the Bill has been more realistic and acute than that of Ministers. Those of us who have been in the Province since the Bill was last considered in Committee have been asked about its provisions and have discussed them with our constituents. Our explanations have been greeted with hoots of laughter—not at our expense, but at the expense of the Government — at the idea that anyone could imagine that such a system could prove workable in practice. Usually our constituents were still laughing when we left them.
The Secretary of State will not find it so agreeable, however, when our predictions are proved true at the next election and it turns out that the provisions of the Bill have been the means of denying many thousands of electors in Northern Ireland the opportunity to exercise the franchise to which they had every reason to believe that they were entitled.
Therefore, we invite the Secretary of State to accept the assistance which we proffer in the new clause. Since the Bill is, on his own showing, experimental and a test, since he has determined that it shall be changed if change is needed, and it will be readily acknowledged that there are precedents in Northern Ireland legislation for an Act coming to a determinate conclusion—indeed, I got the working of the new clause from another Northern Ireland Act—let the Secretary of State acknowledge this. After that he will he fully within his rights in introducing a new Bill, if he wants one at all—that is extremely doubtful —which will be free from the defects of the present Bill. The only safeguard that the House can have is that the Secretary of State will be in a position to carry out the undertaking he has given. It is also the only safeguard, as we have reached this stage in the Bill, that those whom we represent can have that they will be liberated in a measurable time from the inconveniences that the provisions will impose on them.
It may be thought and it may be a criticism—if so, we may be vulnerable to it—that we have allowed this legislation too long a life in our new clause. We have allowed it three years, where it may fairly be argued that the experience of one election—that which will occur in May 1985 — would be sufficient to throw into sharp relief the defects of the Act. Nevertheless, to show a desire to meet the Secretary of State, to show that we are not using the new clause simply as an alternative means of defeating his legislation, it seemed right to proffer a period of three years, since in that period there may well be both a parliamentary and a local government election. The two forms of election can be tested under the provisions of the Bill. That is the reason for the term of three years, which my right hon. Friends and I sought fit to suggest in the new clause.
If, when the Minister replies, he makes it clear that, although he wants either a shorter or, though I hope not, a longer period, he accepts the principle that since this is experimental it should be an experimental Bill, naturally we would be prepared to consider it. He will be on weak ground if he argues against making this a Bill of temporary duration. He will be on extremely weak ground in doing so for we shall remind him that the Province is at present governed by an Act that is renewed annually. Let him not, therefore, say that this comparatively minor piece of legislation should go on the statute book en permanence, failing such recantation or second thoughts that he or subsequent Ministers may have. Let him admit that if it is experimental, it should take its place among experimental Acts of definite duration so that the House will have the opportunity of reconsidering the position in three years' time from the passing of the Act.
It is only fair to the one part of the United Kingdom on which the experiment is being conducted that the House should be not merely given the promise that changes will be considered if necessary, but that the House will survey the experience in the working of the legislation. As the House will be aware, it is part of our grievance that the experiment is not being performed upon the body corporate of the whole nation, but only upon a part—the Province. I hope that the old latin tag
experimentum in vili corpore
is not in the mind of the Government. They thought it a cheap means of carrying out an experiment to try it on Northern Ireland. If the House of Commons insists on trying this on Northern Ireland, at least it should say that after the trial the House will reconsider the experience which has been gained, an experience to which my right hon. and hon. Friends and I look forward with no joyous anticipation. I hope that we shall find the Minister susceptible to the arguments for the new clause.
The objections that we have voiced throughout the passage of the legislation remain and will remain even after it is passed into law, because we think that it is defective. We believe that it will not do the job that the Minister hopes that it will do. The main defect is that there is no positive identification of individuals who are standing before the officers in the polling station. There are no photographs and no system of a single card which ties the individual to the name on the register. We believe, as my right hon. Friend the Member for South Down (Mr. Powell) has said, that a measure as experimental as this should not have an unduly long life before the Minister has to return to the House and give an account of the workings of the Act, and explain why he believes that the ill that occurred did occur.
We are faced not just with the difficulty of stopping the personation that Sinn Fein attempts We are also faced with the problem of ensuring that all legitimate electors can cast their vote.
As one talks to those in the constituencies who are involved in these matters—those who organise for the party of which we, at least, are members — one discovers that they share the misgivings that have been expressed so clearly from this Bench.
There is anxiety that the legislation will not just fail in its stated objective but that the other edge of this two-edged sword will inhibit the legitimate elector from casting his vote.
We believe that those who framed the legislation have greatly underestimated the ruthlessness of those who will seek to bypass it—the IRA and the fellow travellers. One has only to consider the activities displayed by those vicious people in Northern Ireland to realise that. In the city of Londonderry, where of course personation is rife on the west bank, there was a punishment shooting only a week or two ago of four individuals whom the IRA decided were guilty of stepping out of line, in the opinion of Sinn Fein or the IRA. That is the type of threat that is held over the inhabitants of that part of the United Kingdom; that is the type of punishment and trial that people can expect.
When that anarchy and ruthlessness is carried into the militaristic personation that we have seen in Northern Ireland one wonders why this weak Bill was presented at all. It is a sop to those who are calling for something to be done.
He rarely is. The Government have failed to seize the nettle of demanding that everyone in Northern Ireland carries a proper identity card at all times.
I find annoying the inherent belief that people who are members of political parties, and who thereby make a target of themselves in Northern Ireland, are unwilling to stand up against the gunmen. That is not true. We were told by the hon. Member for Foyle (Mr. Hume), during one of his rare visits at the very beginning of the passage of this legislation, that on the first morning of an election 50 out of 700 electors on the roll were turned away for attempted personation. That reflects very great credit on the party of the hon. Member for Foyle. It reflects great credit on the capabilities and courage of his party workers, some of whom suffered afterwards, as he explained to us. It is also a denial of the belief that the people who fight and work for political parties in Northern Ireland are willing to stand up against the gunmen and the killers.
You will appreciate, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that the fears we have expressed about trying to shorten the life of the Bill through the new clause arises out of the events that I have attempted to describe to the House. Some hon. Members were not present during our previous discussions and I should not wish there to be a Division on this matter without those hon. Members being made fully aware of the background and of the fears which we all share. It was for that reason that I digressed from the narrow point expressed in the new clause. If the people of Northern Ireland vote under this legislation without a time limit being imposed, they will find that they are saddled for ever with an ineffective instrument of law. Great reluctance is shown by any Government or Minister to admit that they have got it wrong, even when it is apparent to all involved in the execution of the legislation that they have got it widely wrong. Since the legislation applies only to Northern Ireland you will appreciate, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that the majority of hon. Members in this House who never visit Northern Ireland during elections will not have detailed, first hand knowledge of the practical working of the legislation. I said at an earlier stage that a good sermon is always worth repeating two, three or four times, especially when there is a fresh audience—as, in some measure, we have this evening.
The right hon. Member for Antrim, North refers to sinners, but he will forgive me if I leave conversion to him and to his colleagues. They have taken on board the task of converting the sinners of this world. They have not yet been very successful with Sinn Fein, but one always lives in hope. The problems which will be encountered in trying to stop personation will not change. Although the Bill relates only to Westminster elections, we are very well aware that the first test will be at the local government elections in May 1985, to be followed 18 months later by elections to the Stormont Assembly. Only after that, apart from a strange mischance, will the matter be tested in a simple majority Westminster election.
One has to question whether by introducing this measure in an attempt to cut down the apparent support for Sinn Fein the Government have got it wrong. I believe that they have. If we make dead sure that after three years they must come back to the House with another Bill they will be able to say that the past is over and done with and will escape the strictures of the House for having got it wrong the first time. They can then introduce a Bill, should this be necessary, which will be effective and do the job. They will find that the learning process which will take place over this period of three years will reveal what past statistics have already revealed.
Those who run in terror from an apparent increase in the Sinn Fein vote run from a myth, a will o' the wisp that does not exist. That electoral support has fluctuated over the past three decades. The true Sinn Fein vote in Northern Ireland is between 70,000 and 120,000. It has not changed, and I see no reason to expect a massive change, unless the SDLP collapses, in which case one would expect the Sinn Fein to increase to its potential maximum of 150,000 or 160,000. But that would happen whether or not we had passed the Bill.
The Sinn Fein vote does not depend only on personation. We are told that one fifth of the Sinn Fein votes were personated votes. I believe that the proportion was much less, but I believe that the hard core Sinn Fein vote will remain and will fluctuate only according to the candidate or issues and the feeling in the country at election time.
We say that three years is long enough for an experimental period. Indeed, it may be too long for some of us folk who will have to bear the brunt of the experiment, but we are prepared to give it three years, in the hope that after that time the Government will take careful note of what has happened and will carry out a review and introduce effective legislation.
I do not doubt that the experience will teach us a few lessons, but the Government have much more to learn than we have. I hope that the Parliamentary Under-Secretary will ensure that he and his officials are assiduous in the learning process.
The Bill was produced by people who thought that they knew about personation, but they have never learnt about it at first hand. They have to go through a learning process, absorb lessons and translate them into effective legislation. I hope that after the local government, Assembly and parliamentary elections, the Government will look at what has been said in the debate. We cannot afford to have ineffective legislation. We must have a law to stop the massive personation that has taken place.
Even if personation produced not one fifth, but only one tenth of Sinn Fein's votes, which is probably closer to the mark, it is still massive personation. It proves what tremendous and willing support Sinn Fein receives. If it did not have that support, the terrorism would not succeed. The terrorism, the violence and the kneecapping—
I was trying to draw attention to the fact that the Government will go through a learning process during the three years. I hope that the lessons will be learnt so that when officials put legislation before Ministers next time, not only will they have framed it better, but the Ministers will cast a more critical eye over it.
I am worried. The legislation will cause great difficulties for the honest and some difficulties, but not sufficient, for the wicked. The period of three years is more than enough to assess the Bill's shortcomings in full and to ensure that that which follows is effective, workable and practical and will be praised instead of condemned, not only by my hon. Friends but by those who will have to live and operate within that framework of the law in Northern Ireland.
We seem to have rehearsed most of the arguments during the debates that have taken place in the House on this subject. Therefore, I address myself briefly to the new clause which was moved by the right hon. Member for South Down (Mr. Powell).
The clause certainly has reason on its side. Some of us might consider it to be over-generous, in that our conviction throughout the debates has been that the Bill, which started slowly in the Government's mind some two years ago, almost seemed to be forgotten, and then was suddenly rushed upon us and had to be put through the House post haste. The unnecessary rush on the part of the Government brought with it some unfortunate wording which the Government have felt unable to change. The consequence of that is that we shall have, at the end of the day, an Act which will not work.
The Act will not work, because the fear that causes presiding officers to ignore personation will be the same when the Bill is on the statute book. Those presiding officers are aware of personation. They know that it is taking place under the existing law in Northern Ireland. The prescribed documents suggested by the Minister in the Bill will not provide them with evidence that they did not have before. Those officers see the faces before them. The problem has always been that they are afraid to act. Therefore, the Act will fail to curb the personation and vote-stealing of Sinn Fein.
I do not doubt for one moment the Government's purpose, motivation and intent. They wish to curb personation, and everyone in the House would wish to curb personation. But the Bill will not do that. The need will still arise. After the May local government elections, we shall find that personation is still taking place. But we shall find out much more than that. We shall find out that many hundreds of thousands of people in Northern Ireland, who normally come out rightly and genuinely and sincerely to cast their vote, will have been disenfranchised.
That being the case, I know that the Minister, who is a fair-minded man, will realise at once that this Bill was hasty, ill-prepared and must be removed from the statute book and replaced, if necessary, by some other form of legislation.
Having recognised that a lower poll is caused by the Bill, the Minister will also hear the calls of discrimination that will come from one end of the Province to the other from people who have not been allowed to vote and who believe that they were entitled to do so. That will cast aspersions on the authorities who have been conducting the election and it will cast doubt on the result of the election.
The third thing that the Minister may see—I hope he does not, but knowing the temper in some areas of Northern Ireland I fear that he may — is that the legislation will cause some sort of unrest, perhaps disorder.
Taking those three consequences of the legislation together, I believe that the Minister will be forced, after just the first election, to think again. The May election will be held under the obnoxious single transferable vote system, under which people may have to list candidates from first to twelfth in order of preference. The Minister may think that that is the cause of the discontent. He may want to try again. I hope that he will not, but, if he does. the new clause gives him the opportunity to do so.
I have no reluctance in supporting the new clause. I trust that the Minister will scrutinise closely what happens on 15 May 1985 and will then not be reluctant to admit that the legislation was wrong. Being the man that he is, I know that he will be prepared to admit it. By then, the case will have been proved.
I hope—admittedly without much faith— that the Government will be sympathetic towards the new clause. In about three minutes I should like to adduce three advantages that would flow from accepting it.
First, if it be true — as has been said by hon. Gentlemen representing Northern Ireland constituencies —that the measure will not work, a time limit upon it will be of value because it would then expire and something else could replace it.
Secondly, a limit upon the duration of the measure will give time for a single identity document to be produced for all the inhabitants of the United Kingdom. I shall not repeat the arguments that I presented at an earlier stage of the passage of the Bill, I said that such a document would not be available overnight, but a single identity document for all the inhabitants of this country could certainly be made available within a period of three years to replace — if the measure were to be retained — the array of documents now listed in amendment No. 5.
Thirdly, if it be found after three years that the measure is not necessary or that a different measure is required, such legislation could be incorporated in amendments to the Representation of the People Act, and applied to the United Kingdom as a whole.
With my Ulster Unionist colleagues, I trust that it win be possible to include new clause 1 in the Bill. It is widely accepted that massive personation is practised by Sinn Fein and has distorted election results in the past. To permit that dishonest practice to continue to influence future results could threaten and bring into disrepute the whole democratic process in Northern Ireland.
I do not believe that the Bill will have much effect in preventing Sinn Fein from attempting to personate in the future. As has been clearly established, personation is widely practised in the nationalist and republican areas of Northern Ireland. The same political activists will test the new legislation. There is no doubt about that. That is why the Bill in its present form should not be permitted to last for more than three years. We hope that changes that we have advised will be made then.
The Bill is an attempt to correct public impressions nationally and internationally which have been created by the large numbers of votes that have been cast for Sinn Fein. It can also be seen as an attempt to identify more clearly in future elections the true number of voters who, by supporting Sinn Fein, encourage the murder and maiming of members of our security forces, and as an attempt to ensure that all possible votes can be cast for the SDLP rather than stolen and cast for Sinn Fein. Sinn Fein voters do not have to pull a trigger or detonate a land mine. Their votes approve past murders and bombings, encourage future murders of innocent Protestant farmers and innocent Protestants in their place of worship and contribute to higher unemployment by the bombing of economic targets.
To ensure a fair opportunity for legitimate voters to cast their votes in elections, it is sad that Northern Ireland is being treated differently from the rest of the United Kingdom, despite the fact that attention has been drawn to suspected personation in Great Britain by the hon. Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Bruinvels). We Ulster Unionists have nothing to gain from the Bill. Indeed, some of us could lose as a result of voters being required to present evidence for qualification to vote. It is quite likely that that will deter many from voting.
It is reasonable and sensible that the Act should cease to have effect three years after it takes effect. That time will allow it to be applied to future district council elections and possibly future Westminster elections. The results of those elections should provide adequate information for analysis. In the interests of maintaining a fair democratic process, there should be a review after no more than three years. Such a review would permit the Government to include the advice already given by Ulster Unionists, which has not been included in the Bill. As usual, time will prove us and our advice right. That has often happened before. I do not doubt that, if a review is granted, the advice that we have offered today will be included and applied to the United Kingdom as a whole. I support new clause 1 and regret that an identity card with a photograph is not listed as a prescribed document.
There have been clear expressions of dissatisfaction with the Bill. Clear misgivings have been expressed by right hon. and hon. Members and many commentators. They do not believe that it is practical or that it will work as desired. I have listened carefully to the arguments in favour of the Bill that have been presented by the Secretary of State and Ministers, and I shall continue to do so until the House divides. I fear that they are the only people who believe that this legislation will be a suitable way to stop vote-stealing. Few hon. Members who have spoken have expressed satisfaction with the legislation. Those hon. Members who have listened to the debate perceive that there are many defects in it.
It is only proper that we state once again that the purpose of the Bill is honourable. I have no doubt about the sincerity of the Secretary of State and his Ministers who are suggesting legislation to deal with personation or vote-stealing. All have clearly stated that the purpose of the Bill is to stop vote-stealing, but, as hon. Members on both sides of the House have said on several occasions, the very opposite could be the result when, at the end of the day, the votes have been cast. Honest, decent citizens may be hindered in the free exercise of their vote, and the result of the election may be adversely affected. Rather than stopping Sinn Fein from getting its results in the election, it may be found by one party that the new legislation will work in Sinn Fein's favour, and many honest, decent citizens will have had further impediments put in their way.
Sinn Fein is a very committed group of people. As has been said, they are prepared to spend 20 years in a prison cell for committing murder. What is to stop them from trying to steal votes next election day? However, other parties, which seek an honourable and decent way to encourage people to exercise their vote, may find that people who remember facing an election every year in Northern Ireland, will become fed up with the measures in the legislation that will probably be voted through this evening.
The legislation will be voted through even though most of those who will vote for it will not have listened to any argument from the Ulster Unionists or the Democratic Unionists, because they were not here to listen to them.
The hon. Gentleman is correct.
Therefore, hon. Members cannot vote with a clear conscience and say that they have listened to the arguments and, with a free and open mind, made a decision. This legislation has been decided by the Government for good or ill, for the people of Northern Ireland, whether or not it is the proper way to carry out the legislative process in the best interests of the people of Northern Ireland. I do not believe that it is.
What voice is the Minister listening to? He has listened to what has been said, but not to many of his right hon. and hon. Friends, because only a few of them are here or have spoken through the passage of the Bill. He has not listened to many of the Liberal or SDP Members, because their Benches are completely empty. As to listening to any argument on the matter from Her Majesty's Opposition, the lonely figure sitting on his own on the Opposition Front Bench proves the interest that they have in whether the proper exercise of the vote in Northern Ireland will be hindered by the legislation. The absence of Opposition Members demonstrates clearly that they could not care less.
So I ask the simple question: to whom is the Minister listening? Of course, we are told that one of the parties that the legislation is designed to help is the SDLP. If that was really felt to be so—because certainly it was not in the interests of the Unionist parties that the legislation was introduced—one would have expected to see the hon. Member for Foyle (Mr. Hume) in his place. However, on the numerous occasions that we have discussed these matters he has not found it interesting enough to be here. But, of course, the hon. Gentleman appreciates that there is no need for him to be here, because the legislation will be put through the House in any event, to save his neck, so he can go somewhere else to do something else and not bother to be here to listen to our debates.
I thank you for drawing that to my attention, Mr. Deputy Speaker. One reason is that no' one is interested in it. That, as I have pointed out, is demonstrated by the absence of right hon. and hon. Members from the debate. Indeed, it is one reason why the legislation should not be passed at all. In my view, three years is too long. I should be delighted, as, I am sure, would other hon. Members of the Unionist family, if the Minister said that, having listened to the argument and the complete dissatisfaction expressed by a majority of the right hon. and hon. Members present, he had had second thoughts and no longer wanted to push through the legislation. However, that is too much to ask.
The proposed new clause is a reasonable one if the Minister is going ahead with the legislation because, if it is seen not to be working, it will have to be changed. The amendment will give the Minister a way out, and he will need it. The legislation will prove to have been a folly and an embarrassment to the occupant of his office possibly at the end of one year, let alone three.
For all those reasons, I support the new clause.
I have considered this matter carefully. As you know, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I have attended all these debates in Committee. I have always been troubled by personation, because it has occurred in Leicester, East.
Like my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Sir J. Biggs-Davison), I am tempted by the new clause. It proposes rather a short life for the legislation, but it is still long enough for hon. Members to study the results of the local government elections coming up in May, the results of any Stormont elections and, as the right hon. Member for South Down (Mr. Powell) pointed out, the results, possibly, of a general election. We could all then get round a table and decide whether the legislation had cut out personation. My opinion is that it will cut out personation at a stroke. I appreciate that some hon. Members, especially those representing the Official Unionist party, have said that they see many people being denied the right to vote. That remains to be seen. It has been recommended that the official poll card should have set out upon it all the requirements, inculding documents that should be taken to the polling station. If electors adhered to the requirements, I am certain that the right people would come forward to vote. That could be assessed after three years had passed, and I think that that period would be a satisfactory one in which to determine whether the number of votes cast had declined. I hope that there is a decline in certain votes in Leicester, East but that does not include my own.
The electors need to know what is required when they go to the polling stations and thee should be one voting requirement. This is vital. The hon. Member for Mid-Ulster (Rev. William McCrea) talked about the single transferable vote, which, thank goodness, we do not have in the rest of the United Kingdom.
The best requirement is an identity card. The entire United Kingdom should have one form of identity card. That would cut out a great deal of personation. When three years have passed, I hope that those who represent constituencies in England, Scotland and Wales will be able to persuade the Government that the issuing of identity cards should be considered carefully. If they were issued, we could end personation, which is countrywide, at a stroke. Much of what we have learnt in discussing the Bill can be incorporated in the Representation of the People Bill, which will come before us on Monday. I regret that that Bill did not precede this one.
It is always a great pleasure to be able to take up the remarks of the hon. Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Bruinvels). As the hon. Member for Mid-Ulster (Rev. William McCrea) has said, it is a pity that more hon. Members are not in their places to listen to an interesting and deep debate on an extremely important subject. Its importance lies in the constitutional issues that are raised by the new clause. The constitutional implications will not have escaped the right hon. Member for South Down (Mr. Powell) or the Minister. Parliament is sovereign and no Parliament can bind its successor. Therefore, it is not necessary to have a three-year limitation clause in a measure of this nature. If the serious consequences which have been mentioned were to come about, Parliament could introduce new legislation. I am not entirely sure whether the comments of the right hon. Member for South Down reflected upon the competence of the Government, or that of a future Government, to alter this legislation, when enacted, if there were the consequences to which hon. Members have alluded.
The Bill touches on civil rights, but it cannot be equated with the Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Act 1976 or the Act, which will have to be reviewed shortly, on the use of the Diplock courts. The Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Act 1976 and the legislation that provides the Diplock courts relate to fundamental human rights, and while the Bill touches on human rights I am not entirely sure that it does so to such an extent that a three-year limitation should be written into the Bill.
The Bill should stay as it is and should not be amended by the new clause. There will be district elections next May in Northern Ireland and eventually there will be a general election. I cannot anticipate that a general election will take place before three years have passed. Those two elections may involve too short a period to test fully the purposes behind the Bill and the reasons why identity must be established before one can vote in Northern Ireland.
The hon. Member for Londonderry, East (Mr. Ross) has demonstrated his knowledge of voting in Northern Ireland, and of election registers and how they are kept. He mentioned a point raised by the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Molyneaux) that the Sinn Fein vote, if one goes back to 1921, rises and falls within bands and that the vote at the last election was not unusual. He used that argument to show that the Bill might be ill-conceived and unnecessary. The Opposition take a different view. We believe that if we oppose personation we must support the Bill. That is why we do not support the new clause.
The right hon. Member for South Down reminded me of a short story by Anton Chekhov called "The Three Years" which end with the phrase:
In search of truth, a man makes two steps forward and one step back. Suffering mistakes and the weariness of life thrusts him back, but the search for truth drives him on and on".
We shall always seek the truth in this House, and in relation to the three years the Bill is better as it stands.
I am amazed that those who know nothing, practically, about elections in Northern Ireland, who have never stood at an election in Northern Ireland and who do not know the conditions of electioneering there, seem to know more about how elections should be organised than those who have practical experience.
The House should be interested in giving every possible legitimate voter the right to cast a vote. If democracy is to be maintained in the face of the vicious terrorist attacks by the IRA we must ensure that the people believe in the democratic system. There is only one way to exercise that democratic system — by the vote. I am amazed that some do not regard the right to vote as a basic human right. It is one of the most basic fundamentals of democracy. My right to vote as a legitimate voter should be safeguarded. But some put that right on a different level.
If the House were passing legislation tonight to do for the whole of the United Kingdom what it is doing for Northern Ireland, the Chamber would be packed. Hon. Members on all sides would say that we were trying to hinder or stop people from voting. They would say that we were denying the right of people to vote. But since we are legislating for Northern Ireland it does not matter and hon. Members are not concerned.
We have an assurance from the Minister that he will give the people time to operate the system. Shall we have the same restricted hours in Northern Ireland for our elections? Shall we have the time to lengthen the voting procedure?
It is amazing that the Minister thinks that the current regulations are operated in the polling booths. I understand that the presiding officer has the duty, according to the law, to ask for the name and address of the person who approaches the officials to get a voting slip. Anyone who knows anything about electioneering in Northern Ireland knows that people come to vote with a polling card. That polling card is taken, and the name is looked up on the polling list and marked off. That is done hundreds and hundreds of times on polling day, and everyone knows that. I wonder how many hon. Members representing Northern Ireland were ever asked their name at a polling booth.
With due respect, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that is amazing. We have had a wide debate, and I have listened with great care to other hon. Members make the points that I am now making. Is there, with respect, some restriction tonight preventing me from taking part in this debate while other hon. Members can make their speeches without any interjection from the Chair?
Order. I invite the hon. Member, as I have invited a number of hon. Members who have taken part in this debate, to address himself to the new clause that is before us, which deals with the duration of this legislation. I am sure that the hon. Member will address himself to that subject.
I am seeking, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to build up a case for why the new clause should be accepted by the House. I am trying to point out to the House, as best I can, what happens in Northern Ireland elections. We shall have a complete change of procedure. Those who come to the polling booth will have to come armed with a particular document. I still do not understand what happens to that document in the polling booth. The Secretary of State has made many statements about what will happen. I do not know whether that document will be the decisive document, whether the presiding officer will still make his decision without reference to the document or whether the address of the document really matters. I do know that the whole voting procedure will be seriously delayed and that many legitimate voters who come to vote will be dismayed by the fact that obstacles will be set in their way.
It is no use hon. Members thinking that that will not happen. Do hon. Members really think that Northern Ireland voters are different from anyone else in the rest of the United Kingdom? When the Northern Ireland people come to the polling booth, they come to vote. After this Bill is passed in this House, receives approval in the other place and is given the Royal Assent, this legislation will be forgotten until election day. Then there will be the furore of questions: Do I have the documents? Where are they?
New clause 1 contains a reasonable proposal. We talk about the legislation applying immediately after it is passed. Why not say that in three years it should be completely reconsidered? We have been told that we are in uncharted waters. Surely, having floated over those waters, we will be better able to chart them properly. Various hon. Members proposed what the Minister said were good ideas. Those good ideas are now lost. Will those proposals be written into the legislation at some future time? In three years, will we redraft the whole of this legislation?
The hon. Member for Foyle (Mr. Hume), who has just joined us—there were some remarks about why he was not present—proposed that, in future, instead of the head of the house signing the document for all in the house so that their names could be put on the register, everybody should sign his name and write his date of birth. That would be done in duplicate. The presiding officer would have a copy. A person would be asked, "What is your name? What is your date of birth?" and told to sign his name. The presiding officer would know then who that person was. But that would all be forgotten. People would not come back and do that.
No one has stood up in this House and said that he wants to see personation. We are all against it. Everyone in the House believes in the principle of the Bill, but we do not believe that the Bill will achieve the desired result. If I thought that the Bill would achieve it, I would not be taking part in the debate; I would be happy to let it go through. The Bill will do grave damage to legitimate voters wanting to vote in Northern Ireland. It is the hon. Members in this House and our council colleagues who will bear the burden and heat of the day when the election day comes.
We are asking the Government to meet us and agree that after three years the whole procedure will be redrafted, with the benefit of experience and added wisdom. Is that an unfair request to make? The majority of hon. Members from Northern Ireland are asking that tonight. It is reasonable and fair that the Minister and the Government should meet us on the matter.
What worries me is that the Government, by presenting the Bill in its present form, have apparently not made themselves acquainted with the practicalities of carrying out the law on polling day. I hope that the Minister will bring us good news tonight. I hope that he will tell us that the hours are to be lengthened, and that the Government will give us the same hours for the local elections in Northern Ireland as we have for elections to this House. I hope that he will say that there will be no curtailment of the hours, and that people may have adequate time.
There are many matters in the Bill that will not be helpful, and I ask the Government to agree to look at the legislation after three years. We have renewals in regard to many other important matters of 'law in Northern Ireland. Why can we not have a new Bill presented which will embody the proposals which have been made in this House? I plead with the Minister to meet the representations which have been made to him by the people on the ground who will have to work the legislation if it is passed by this House.
I have listened very carefully to the arguments on the new clause. Having considered them, it is now my duty to explain why the Government do not feel able to accept the new clause.
In no sense can the Government be accused, as the hon. Member for Londonderry, East (Mr. Ross) suggested, of engaging in hasty or ill-considered legislation on this matter. As he knows, as the House knows, and as every constitutional party in Northern Ireland knows, these proposals have been under consideration since the beginning of 1982, there have been representations about . them from the constitutional parties in Northern Ireland, and the Government very carefully considered the principles on which the legislation should be based before introducing it to the House.
Before turning to the three main reasons why I feel that the Government cannot accept the new clause, perhaps I may rebut the point, made by the right hon. Member for South Down (Mr. Powell), that this is in any sense an inexpensive, or a cheap, trial in Northern Ireland of something that is to be applied more widely in the United Kingdom in due course.
Northern Ireland is where the problem of personation exists. It exists in a very serious way, as was borne in on the Government by representations from all the constitutional parties there. During the progress of the Bill through the House I have said how much I regret the necessity for treating Northern Ireland differently from the rest of the United Kingdom, but that is where the problem exists and where action has to be taken to preserve the integrity of the electoral process.
The right hon. Gentleman gave as his reason for introducing the new clause that it would make it easier for the Secretary of State to make amendments if that proved necessary or desirable in the light of experience. It is clear from the approach of the right hon. Gentleman and others that they had substantial amendments in mind which would alter the basis of the legislation. I shall outline to the House three reasons why I should be very reluctant indeed to go down that road.
As a matter of principle, I do not believe that the House would or should agree to frame or enact legislation on the assumption that it may well fail to achieve its intended objective. When I spoke in earlier debates on the Bill about going into uncharted waters or unknown territory, I was talking about the effects of the Bill on polling station procedures as we have known them. I have, however, no doubt whatsoever about the effect of the Bill on personation. In my view, which has remained unchanged throughout the passage of the Bill, the combined effects of clauses 1 and 3 provide the most effective deterrent against widespread organised personation that it is possible to devise in the circumstances facing us and within the time scale that we have if we are to deal with this before the local government elections in May next year.
I am not saying that at all. I am saying that if, in addition to the circumstances facing us, there was another constraint that the Government had to bear in mind it was the necessity to take action by May 1985.
I acknowledge, of course—I thought that this point was dealt with very well by the hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Mr. Bell) — that two of the most important pieces of legislation applying in Northern Ireland—the Northern Ireland Act, which provides for the system of direct rule, and the Northern Ireland (Emergency Provisions) Act—are temporary in nature, as indeed is the Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Act which applies throughout the kingdom. In all those cases, however, because of the exceptional nature of the legislation and the impact on human rights, Parliament decided that the legislation should be subject to regular renewal in the hope that the circumstances which made it necessary would go away. But that is a very different matter from enshrining in statute, by implication, the sentiment that a particular measure is probably flawed in principle and that provision must therefore be made for improvement in subsequent legislation.
Thirdly, on a purely practical note, the aspect of the Bill which it has become clear from our discussions is most likely to require examination as it works out in practice is the list of prescribed documents. If, through experience and reflection, it appears that certain documents should be added to or substracted from the list, or if in due course it is decided to go for a single document, the Bill provides that that can be achieved by means of statutory instruments. Indeed, that was one of the ideas put forward by the right hon. Member for South Down in Committee.
I cannot accept, however, that the principles and purposes of the Bill are unsound or likely to be rendered obsolete within the kind of time scale envisaged by the new clause. I therefore recommend that the House reject the new clause.
The Minister took exception to the suggestion made by my hon. Friend the Member for Londonderry, East (Mr. Ross) that the Bill had been drafted in haste and that the Government had acted in haste and without consultation. He will know, however, that although consultations began early in 1982 they came to a sticky end long before the elections.
On the not inappropriate date of 12 July 1982 the former Secretary of State wrote to me:
I therefore intend to leave matters as they are at present".
And so they remained until the Gracious Speech announced that this Bill was to be bounced upon us. I am sure that the Minister did not intend to mislead the House, but it is clearly wrong to suggest that consultation had been continuous when, in fact, there was consultation for a few months and then nothing further until the Gracious Speech and the introduction of the Bill.
That is not true. Apart from having had representations from the Ulster Unionist party after the general election in 1983, it was made clear on other occasions that consultations were continuing. I answered a parliamentary question on the matter earlier this year and made it clear that the Government were still considering which measures they might take to counter personation, including the introduction of a Bill.
I agree that ideas were exchanged occasionally. There was a further letter from the former Secretary of State on 10 March 1983, but it did not take us far because he proceeded to list mainly the objections and difficulties in proceeding as he originally intended. That does not mean consultation within my meaning of the term.
That was the point that I attempted to make. Apart from the occasional mention of the problem, there was no consultation in the sense that ideas were put to parties or a consultative process was engaged in in a meaningful way in the interval.
The hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Mr. Bell) referred to other items of legislation with a terminal date, and sought to show that they were different because they affected human rights. It is true that they affect the human rights of some people, but the Bill affects the basic human rights of all. Like the hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley) I cannot accept that the right to vote unhindered is not one of the most basic human rights of all.
To be fair to the Government, they never concealed their doubts about the measure. The Minister has shown that he is aware of its difficulties and weaknesses. During previous debates he has made it clear that he is willing to reconsider and re-examine the legislation. It does not, therefore, seem unreasonable to hope even at this late hour —both chronologically and in our discussions—that the Minister will listen to our pleas and welcome the assistance that we are attempting to offer him by providing a way out in the new clause.
Three years is a reasonable period. It will take some time after the elections in May 1985 to evaluate the results and the voting patterns. That is important. If the Government feel that it could be done in a shorter period, we would offer no objections. Another time factor is involved with the drafting and processing of the Bill. It has emerged in previous debates that similar problems of vote-stealing have occurred in England. We have evidence that that has appeared fairly significantly in England. The Minister, and other Ministers, have said that they do not believe that because the Home Office does not know about it. Unless my calculations are far out, in the light of what many hon. Members who represent English constituencies have said, I shall be surprised if the Home Office is not made aware of those difficulties within the next three years.
Therefore, I would have thought that three years would be an appropriate period. That also raises the question of who urged the Northern Ireland Office to make haste and to take such speedy action in Northern Ireland. It is true that many Northern Ireland parties were aware of the vote-stealing activities of Sinn Fein, but we did not lose our heads over it. We had been through the problems before and managed to contain it.
One asks what were the sources of the pressure that forced or persuaded the Government into a Bill with such haste. Like the Government, those sources felt that they needed more time because they have not been enthusiastic in helping the rest of us make the Bill a little more workable.
We have listed the defects, and this is not the occasion to restate them. The Government admit that they are sailing in uncharted waters. We have put down numerous marker buoys to assist the Government and we trust that they will make use of those devices.
We hope that the Government and those who have to implement the legislation and try to make the mechanism work will, in due course, be able to report their conclusions to us. Even at this late stage we are offering the Government a way out. Like them, we shall be watching the working of all the devices.
I make the Minister a genuine and sincere offer—we are prepared to assist him in monitoring all this legislation for the next three years, and then to return and co-operate with him or his successor in framing a new Bill if that proves necessary. If the Minister maintains that he cannot concede and accept our amendment, I have no option but to urge all hon. Members to support the new clause one.
|Division No. 40]||[11.51 pm|
|Beggs, Roy||Parry, Robert|
|Forsythe, Clifford (S Antrim)||Powell, Rt Hon J. E. (S Down)|
|McCrea, Rev William||Robinson, P. (Belfast E)|
|McCusker, Harold||Skinner, Dennis|
|Molyneaux, Rt Hon James||Tellers for the Ayes:|
|Nicholson, J.||Mr. William Ross and|
|Paisley, Rev Ian||Mr. A. Cecil Walker.|
|Amess, David||Lennox-Boyd, Hon Mark|
|Ancram, Michael||Lester, Jim|
|Atkinson, David (B'm'th E)||Lilley, Peter|
|Bell, Stuart||Lloyd, Peter, (Fareham)|
|Best, Keith||Lord, Michael|
|Bevan, David Gilroy||McCrindle, Robert|
|Boscawen, Hon Robert||Macfarlane, Neil|
|Brandon-Bravo, Martin||MacGregor, John|
|Brooke, Hon Peter||McKay, Allen (Penistone)|
|Brown, M. (Brigg & Cl'thpes)||Mather, Carol|
|Buck, Sir Antony||Maude, Hon Francis|
|Carlisle, John (N Luton)||Mayhew, Sir Patrick|
|Carlisle, Kenneth (Lincoln)||Meadowcroft, Michael|
|Clarke, Rt Hon K. (Rushcliffe)||Mellor, David|
|Conway, Derek||Merchant, Piers|
|Cope, John||Meyer, Sir Anthony|
|Cranborne, Viscount||Miller, Hal (B'grove)|
|Currie, Mrs Edwina||Mills, Iain (Meriden)|
|Dorrell, Stephen||Moate, Roger|
|Douglas-Hamilton, Lord J.||Moynihan, Hon C.|
|Dover, Den||Murphy, Christopher|
|Durant, Tony||Newton, Tony|
|Fairbairn, Nicholas||Nicholls, Patrick|
|Fallon, Michael||Osborn, Sir John|
|Favell, Anthony||Page, Richard (Herts SW)|
|Forsyth, Michael (Stirling)||Patchett, Terry|
|Forth, Eric||Pawsey, James|
|Fox, Marcus||Percival, Rt Hon Sir Ian|
|Freeman, Roger||Powell, William (Corby)|
|Gale, Roger||Powley, John|
|Galley, Roy||Raffan, Keith|
|Garel-Jones, Tristan||Rhodes James, Robert|
|Gregory, Conal||Rhys Williams, Sir Brandon|
|Griffiths, Peter (Portsm'th N)||Rifkind, Malcolm|
|Ground, Patrick||Roe, Mrs Marion|
|Hamilton, Hon A. (Epsom)||Sackville, Hon Thomas|
|Hamilton, Neil (Tatton)||Sainsbury, Hon Timothy|
|Hanley, Jeremy||Sayeed, Jonathan|
|Hargreaves, Kenneth||Scott, Nicholas|
|Harvey, Robert||Shaw, Sir Michael (Scarb')|
|Hawksley, Warren||Smith, Tim (Beaconsfield)|
|Hayes, J.||Soames, Hon Nicholas|
|Heathcoat-Amory, David||Spencer, Derek|
|Hickmet, Richard||Stanbrook, Ivor|
|Hind, Kenneth||Stern, Michael|
|Holt, Richard||Stevens, Lewis (Nuneaton)|
|Howarth, Alan (Stratf'd-on-A)||Stevens, Martin (Fulham)|
|Howarth, Gerald (Cannock)||Taylor, John (Solihull)|
|Hume, John||Thompson, Donald (Calder V)|
|Hunt, John (Ravensbourne)||Thorne, Neil (Ilford S)|
|Hunter, Andrew||Thurnham, Peter|
|Jackson, Robert||Tracey, Richard|
|Jones, Gwilym (Cardiff N)||Twinn, Dr Ian|
|Jones, Robert (W Herts)||Walden, George|
|Kennedy, Charles||Wallace, James|
|Key, Robert||Waller, Gary|
|King, Roger (B'ham N'field)||Wardle, C. (Bexhill)|
|Knight, Gregory (Derby N)||Wheeler, John|
|Lang, Ian||Whitney, Raymond|
|Lawler, Geoffrey||Wilkinson, John|
|Leigh, Edward (Gainsbor'gh)||Wolfson, Mark|
|Wood, Timothy||Tellers for the Noes:|
|Yeo, Tim||Mr. John Major and|
|Mr. Michael Neubert.|