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With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 15, in clause 2, page 3, line 47, at end insert—
'(2A) In section 6 (absent vote at elections for an indefinite period) after subsection (1) there is inserted—
"(1A) Any application under subsection (1) for an absent vote must be by means of an application form provided by the Chief Electoral Officer; and
(1B) Any application form supplied by the Chief Electoral Officer under subsection (1A) shall be marked with a bar code unique to each form.".'.
No. 4, in clause 3, page 4, line 4, after "application", insert—
'is made on a form supplied by the Chief Electoral Officer for Northern Ireland containing such marking or coding as he may determine,'.
I am grateful for the progress that we made in Committee, when the Government changed the Bill to include a requirement to put the date of birth on applications for absent votes. Yet again, I am here to help the Minister. He has accepted our help, to some extent, on one occasion. In Committee, he said:
"Our aim is automated processing of absent vote applications—that is, by computer—in the time period available, which is different from the time period in Great Britain".—[Official Report, Standing Committee D,
The amendments would achieve precisely that.
This is an area of key importance in addressing electoral fraud in Northern Ireland. Paragraph 38 of the excellent 1998 report from the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs concludes:
"Absent voting provides a serious threat to the integrity of the electoral system in Northern Ireland—a view with which the Interim Review agrees."
The extent of absent voting in Northern Ireland and the potential for abuse, which was predicted in the report, was confirmed by the statistics that emerged from the 2001 general election. The seats that were contested most fiercely and resulted in gains by Sinn Fein, which has been associated and identified with a fairly ruthless and, in the words of Mr. McGrady, a paramilitary organised approach to these issues, included West Tyrone, where the astonishing number of 2,012 proxy votes and 3,427 postal votes were granted. There was a total of 5,443 absent votes. In Fermanagh and South Tyrone, 4,664 postal votes and 1,116 proxy votes were granted, and there was a total of 5,784 absent votes.
The number of proxy votes granted in West Tyrone is fabulous, and I do not think that any other constituency in the United Kingdom can come remotely close to that figure. Certainly, no constituency in Northern Ireland does, because the next highest number of proxy votes is about half that.
The constituencies of West Tyrone, Fermanagh and South Tyrone, and Mid-Ulster, all Sinn Fein held, were the ones with the highest number of absent votes. To say that there is a coincidence between those figures and the fact that Sinn Fein is on the receiving end of accusations about an organised approach to the abuse of the electoral system is to take coincidence one step too far.
The prediction that was made by the Select Committee in 1998 appears on the basis of the statistical evidence to be borne out by what happened in the last general election. Unless the amendments are accepted, as the law stands—and will continue to stand under the Bill when it is enacted—only the information with an absent vote application has to be delivered to the chief electoral officer. The Bill does not specify in which form that information is to come.
If the Minister wants to meet his aim of automated processing of absent vote applications, those application forms will have to marry up with the computer system for the information to be read in the appropriate place. So far, the House has not agreed to include the requirement for national insurance numbers, but if we require the signature and date of birth as factors to be tested between the absent vote application and the register, the forms must enable that to happen. Otherwise, we will be in the same position as we are today.
In the general election in Northern Ireland, 31,048 postal vote applications and 10,000 proxy vote applications were made, which gives a total of more than 40,000. The chief electoral officer was not able to check, even after the event, whether those applications merited further investigation. In the 1997 general election, the chief electoral officer was faced with a tidal wave of up to 10,000 applications that were produced at the very last moment. There was a only a short time between the presentation of those applications and the general election, and given the way in which the forms are constituted, there was not a cat in hell's chance for the chief electoral officer to check them properly. That is known, so people who wish to abuse the system have an opportunity to do so.
In Committee, the Minister mentioned the fact that we should not advertise the opportunities to defraud the system by explaining that it was sufficient to provide the necessary information without using the official form, but I am sure that those who wished to do so could work it out for themselves. The abuse of the electoral system is sophisticated and if we leave a loophole, it will be exploited. It is our job to ensure that that cannot happen.
The Government resisted similar amendments in Committee and squeaked through the Division nine votes to eight, which means that all five Opposition parties were united in their view, including all the parties representing Northern Ireland. The Minister said that the change would be an unnecessary restriction on normal activities as part of the political process. I do not accept that. The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee and the chief electoral officer—who has been in post for 17 years—believe such fraud to be the commonest form of vote stealing in Northern Ireland and it must be addressed. The most effective way to address it is to ensure that the forms on which people apply for absent votes are those issued by the chief electoral officer.
My amendments would leave it to the chief electoral officer to decide the format of the form, but the amendments tabled by the Liberal Democrats would require the form to be bar-coded and would place a duty on the chief electoral officer to ensure that the forms could be individually identifiable. It is the chief electoral officer's intention to bar-code the forms, if possible, but I have been convinced by the arguments for flexibility and would leave the decision to him. However, the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire and I differ only slightly on the issue.
The issue is important and the Minister needs to address it. He was able to give some comfort to us earlier tonight and I hope that he will be able to do so again.
Mr. Blunt suggested that the absent vote system—for the sick and disabled, and for proxy votes—presented the biggest opportunity for electoral fraud and I can but agree with that statement. However, statistics are wonderful things and I shall give a few figures from the table mentioned by the hon. Gentleman.
In 1997, before the 1998 report from the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, the percentage of absent votes in West Tyrone was 7.5 and it went up to 9 per cent. in 2001. For Fermanagh and South Tyrone, in 1997 the percentage was 9.3 and it went down to 8.7 per cent. in 2001. In Mid-Ulster, it was 8.6 per cent. in 1997 and fell to 6.7 per cent in 2001. High figures for absent votes are not a new phenomenon but have been going on for many years. I should like to attribute great insight to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, but modesty and the statistics forbid me.
However, this is a serious issue, and one with which we have wrestled for many years at hustings in Northern Ireland. The difficulty is that it has been traditional for the political parties, in the most honourable and trustworthy way, to help people to vote who otherwise could not go to the polls for one reason or another. The people thus helped have included those permanently on the sick list because of disablement, or those temporarily affected by sickness or injury during an election. Some people, of course, are unable to vote in elections for other reasons, or are elsewhere when election day comes around.
The phenomenon of trusted proxies is relatively new, but their use as a way to represent people at the polls is valid and is increasing. However, I think that imposing on the electoral officer and his assistants the requirement that each postal vote application form issued should be coded individually would cause practical difficulties.
Moreover, I believe that the proposal would diminish the ability of people to secure a postal vote when there are genuine reasons that render them unable to vote in person on the day of an election. Perhaps that is its purpose. In my experience, it is very difficult to get the electoral office to issue postal applications in time for people to return them, and requiring the applications to be allocated on a one-to-one basis would make that process even more difficult.
If all the people unable to get to the polling station on election day had to apply for a form permitting them an absent vote, I believe that the system would break down, as they would have to complete the form, get it attested, and send it back in time for inclusion in the poll. I am fully aware of what goes on in certain areas, and that means that I am reluctant to make the process so difficult. The danger is that many people would be disfranchised if numbered and traceable application forms were introduced.
It has been suggested that block applications could be given to the existing accredited representatives of political parties, and that those block applications could have a single, identifiable code number that would allow the person or group to whom the block application was issued to be identified. In other parts of the country colours could be used to identify the block applications, but that could cause all sorts of difficulties in Northern Ireland.
Although the use of a code number would not be foolproof, as no doubt the number would filter out somewhere down the line and duplication could take place, it would be a step towards what is proposed in the amendments. On balance, however, I am unable to support what is proposed in the amendments because I judge that many people who are legitimately unable to vote because they are ill or absent on election day would be disfranchised. In addition, I consider that the proposed system would be unnecessarily complicated.
As in the last group of amendments, when I made common cause with Mr. Trimble and Lady Hermon, so also we make common cause on amendment No. 15. This has already been touched on, but let me outline the key reason why I believe, along with the right hon. Gentleman and the hon. Lady, that bar codes are an important evolution in reducing fraud.
I have been concerned about the opportunities for fraud with regard to absent votes in United Kingdom elections as a whole. Some of the important check steps are absent if people are absent themselves. As such, the people in Northern Ireland for whom the legislation is intended are most likely to go to the point of least resistance once other changes have been made. Even with the Bill's limitations, given that the Government have not accepted our amendments, there will be some improvement in the situation in Northern Ireland. However, if the Government do not accept the proposal in amendment No. 15, we still have the Achilles' heel of absent votes.
The principle of the proposal was debated in Committee. We stipulated that applications for absent votes must contain a bar code, which are easy to scan and difficult to reproduce. The basic principle is to have each application form for an absent vote marked in a specific way so that applications cannot be photocopied wholesale many times over, as has been the case in the past. Each code will be unique to its particular application form and, by direct implication, to a particular person.
Mr. Blunt said that about 40,000 absent votes were recorded in Northern Ireland in the recent election. Even if that figure were 80,000, the cost of specifying a particular bar code for each paper would be relatively small, perhaps a few pence per sheet. Given the benefit that would be gained, the investment of a few thousand pounds would surely not be prohibitive. So cost is not an issue. The logistical challenge of creating these forms is well within the Government's technological capabilities, so there is no logistical barrier to having a supply available.
Mr. McGrady, who is resistant to amendment No. 15 and this group as a whole, can be reassured by the fact that we would not have to maintain the existing limitations on availability of forms. We could streamline it and speed it up and still maintain a cohesion as to who gets which form. We could track where large blocks of forms go and ensure that there was no concerted effort to duplicate the applications, which would show up with the bar codes.
In terms of the cohesion of the system as a whole, bar codes would enable us to spot patterns if a large block of forms was completed in the same handwriting in a suspicious fashion. We could trace patterns much more easily if each form was observed afterwards as having come from a particular block given to a particular grouping.
There is no absolute certainty, even with bar codes. A fraudster who was inventive and determined enough could still be responsible for a limited degree of fraud. However, it would get much more difficult as the circumstantial evidence would mount up until the people behind the fraud could be identified and prosecuted.
If bar codes are not introduced, the Liberal Democrats are concerned that we would be unable to make significant progress. As right hon. and hon. Members who served on the Committee will recall, at present one can use any piece of paper in Northern Ireland or in any election in the United Kingdom with which to apply for a postal vote. When I was a councillor in Newcastle upon Tyne, the incidence of requesting postal votes on anything other than a proprietary form was fairly small. The political parties active in the Newcastle area were assiduous in using the readily available forms from Newcastle council. If we can be sure that honourable individuals and their associated political parties are willing to use these forms at council level, I would like to think that the same would apply to Northern Ireland.
Sadly, we have just rejected the case for the use of national insurance numbers, which are unique to individuals as right hon. and hon. Members will recall. I fear that we will have to return to that matter in another place. In their absence it makes it even more important that individual absent vote forms are traceable. In that way, we can ensure that forged signatures and so forth can at least be tracked as I described.
What is the Minister's view of the desirability of tracing individual forms and has it changed since the Committee? If he accepts that there are no logistical or significant costing negatives to introducing bar codes, will he at least consider the case that we have put forward and respond in kind to the many hon. Members who are interested in ensuring that each form can be traced?
At this stage I wish merely to direct the Minister to the comments that he made in Committee at columns 68 and 70, where he said of having bar codes or some other number on the forms:
"The chief electoral officer will in future ensure that applications . . . will be given a unique identifier, be it a serial number or a bar code."
Evidently the object, as I understand it, is to move to a position where such applications will be processed automatically.
The Minister went on to say with regard to that processing:
"I cannot stand in front of the Committee and claim that all of that can be done now, because none of it can be. The purpose of the Bill is . . . to match the plans for computers and software so that we will reach a point in 2003 when we can interdict the dishonest use of votes".—[Official Report, Standing Committee D,
Will the Minister elucidate on whether he is any closer to realising those proposals? Can he assure us that sufficient resources will be provided to ensure that a system in which an individual identifier is put on the application forms is introduced, and that they can be automatically processed by 2003, in time for the next Assembly election?
I can assure Mr. Trimble that the resources are available and will be made available as necessary to achieve the objectives that have been set out in the planned programme of change for the introduction of the necessary computers and software in the electoral office. That will enable the very things that I spelled out in Committee, on Second Reading, and today to be done in time for the planned elections for the Northern Ireland Assembly in May 2003. As currently advised, we are still on course to achieve that objective. I intend to consult the parties in Northern Ireland and to find a mechanism to keep them involved in discussions about progress towards that objective.
We had detailed discussions in Committee about many aspects of absent voting—properly so, as there is clearly great concern about abuse of the electoral system. It is not merely a matter of statistics although, interestingly, when one aggregates the statistical evidence for Northern Ireland, the rate of absent voting is not significantly greater than the overall rate for the rest of the United Kingdom. It is concentrated in certain constituencies. The statistical evidence given us by my hon. Friend Mr. McGrady is also of some interest, in that there has been no consistent rise in the number of absent votes used in certain constituencies.
Whatever the explanation for these shifts—perhaps we need not dwell too much on an explanation of why there may have been shifts in individual constituencies—there is well justified concern about the potential offered by the absent voting system for fraud and about evidence that suggests that fraud is being perpetrated by the use of absent votes.
Apart from that very general concession to the points properly made by contributors to the debate, I shall concentrate on the specific amendments for the remainder of my speech. The intended effect of the amendments would be that any individual application for an absent vote would have to be made on an original form provided by the chief electoral officer. It is on that point that I part company with the supporters of the amendments. I believe that the proposals would hinder individuals who wanted to apply for an absent vote.
As I said in Committee, the current law does not require people anywhere in the UK to apply for absent votes on a particular form. There is no evidence to suggest that the existence of that opportunity has been exploited by anybody intending or attempting to commit fraud in the electoral system anywhere in the United Kingdom.
In Northern Ireland, unlike the rest of the UK, an applicant for an absent vote is required to give the chief electoral officer certain information. Until now, the law has been that it is the information that entitles the applicant to the vote—not the form on which the information is presented. However, it is currently the norm for applications for absent votes in Northern Ireland to be submitted in the main on forms—or copies of forms—that are provided by the chief electoral officer. The chief electoral officer already plans to take administrative measures to ensure that applications for an absent vote will be given some kind of unique identifier—be it a serial number or a bar code—and that can be achieved without either primary or secondary legislation.
When it comes to tracing to whom the original form was issued, it will not matter if an application for an absent vote was made on an original form or on a photocopy, because the bar code would be copied on the copy. We do not have to insist that all forms are original to find out who took them out of the office. The chief electoral officer has only to record to whom he gave the individual forms. Although electors will not be required to submit their applications on a form from the electoral office, I suspect that it will continue to be the norm for most people to do so. I have no reason to believe that in future there will be a sudden flood of applications on odd bits of paper. However, I am not inclined to remove the possibility that people currently have to make an application in a form other than on an original form or a copy of an original form provided by the chief electoral officer. We live in a democracy and I shall not put into legislation any measures that could disfranchise people.
"The chief electoral officer will in future ensure that applications for an absent vote will be given a unique identifier, be it a serial number or a bar code."?—[Official Report, Standing Committee D,
Surely that means that if two forms came in with the same bar code they would not be accepted by the electoral officer.
I am sure that if the hon. Gentleman reads my whole contribution, he will see that I made it perfectly clear on more than one occasion during that Committee debate that it would still be open to parties to copy those forms. Although the form would be unique when it was provided by the chief electoral officer, it would still be open to parties to copy those forms as they do at present.
Earlier today, I made the point that as long as the original form that is copied includes the bar code it will be possible to identify to whom it was given. As I explained in Committee and now repeat, it is not my understanding that the effect of any of the amendments would be that parties would not be able to pick up more than one form from the chief electoral officer. That would defeat the objective of being able to identify to which specific voter a bar-coded form was sent or given. Those who tabled the amendments in the group are not suggesting that parties will not be able to go in and pick up forms in hundreds, or even more, if they are available. In those circumstances, how does amendment No. 3 achieve the objective of making it possible to trace a particular form to an individual voter?
The Minister makes a fair point. After reading the fuller contribution that he made in Committee, I recall his views on the subject. However, will he at least recognise that there is a difference of view here—on one side a concern that it is easier if each form genuinely is an original, and on the other the argument that he is making—and will he accept my concern that if any photocopying is allowed, it significantly weakens the opportunities to trace voters who exercise absent votes? I do not want to pursue the matter further; I believe that we have both made our points.
I accept the objective that the hon. Gentleman has now set up, but that objective, which the official Opposition may share, could be achieved only by an amendment that required an individual voter to make application individually to the chief electoral officer for a form and to obtain that form from the chief electoral officer, so that in the first place the chief electoral officer knew which voter was asking for the form and could give a bar code to that individual voter.
Failing that, those who apply for more than one form will need to have in advance the names of the voters who will use those forms. It seems to me, with respect, that we are in danger of creating a level of bureaucracy in relation to absent votes that will be calculated—I use that word advisedly—to defeat the opportunity for many people to vote, either by proxy or by post.
There is an issue about the traceability of the forms that are going out from the CEO to individuals. The Minister's argument that the process would be too bureaucratic is well made, and he talks about the opportunity for parties to photocopy the forms and make application on photocopied forms. That in a sense is not, as I understand it, precluded by amendments Nos. 3 and 4.
The Minister must still address the fact that the reason why at the moment the forms are in pretty much the same format as those issued by the chief electoral officer is that they cannot yet be checked by computer, but by 2003 he wants to be able to computer-check these things. Unless the applications come in on a specified form once the computer-checking is up and running, the whole point of that computer-checking will be negated.
The hon. Gentleman makes my point precisely. Amendments Nos. 3 and 4 do not prevent parties from collecting one form from the chief electoral officer and photocopying that form, because that would still be a form that had been provided by the chief electoral officer and an application would be made on that form. They are therefore consistent with what we are putting in place administratively, and there is no need for the amendments to achieve the objective that we can achieve administratively.
The hon. Gentleman is arguing that unless the information is submitted in a format that is identical to the format of every other application, it cannot be checked by the chief electoral officer using a computer. I do not accept that that is necessarily so. In my view, the information provided on the form can be checked against a simple keying process on the computer, but in any event the bulk of the applications will come in—I expect that they will continue to do so—on forms that have been provided by the chief electoral officer and then copied, or on the originals of those forms. The comparatively small number that may arrive in another form will still entitle people to vote. I do not accept that a flood of applications will suddenly come in on odd bits of paper.
The requirement for electors to provide additional identifiers in the registration and in any subsequent application will improve the efforts to authenticate absent vote applications. Applications and declarations of identity will require the elector to provide a signature and a date of birth, and those data can be compared with those that an elector provided on registration. That is how the system will operate, and in the light of those remarks I hope that the hon. Gentleman will be persuaded to withdraw the amendment.
I shall reply briefly to this short debate, in which we have dealt with absent votes. The Minister has gone round the same course as in Committee, and we do not yet have a satisfactory answer to the issue that I raised in an intervention. The behaviour of parties that want to abuse the process will change when they realise that to avoid automated checking—the position that the Minister wants to reach—they need to supply the information on a large scale on forms other than those issued by the chief electoral officer.
The Minister is entitled to say that, so far, there has been no suggestion that people will not use the forms, or copies of the forms, produced by the chief electoral officer. Plainly, that is all right at the moment because it is convenient. However, rather than make their own forms, parties that want to abuse the process will give 10,000 applications to the chief electoral officer at the last possible moment, so that he is totally overwhelmed and unable to check them because it has to be done manually. The moment the system is computerised, the way to stop computer-checking will be to ensure that the information is presented on a non-standard form. That opportunity exists, and the House should prevent that loophole from being exploited by parties that might be determined to do so.
Surely the hon. Gentleman will agree that it is a question not of identifying the form, per se, but of determining that the form has been returned by the applicant. That will be based on the signature and the date of birth identifiers—and, we hope, on the national insurance identification in future—not on the actual piece of paper, so individual application forms need not be bar coded.
I take the point that the hon. Gentleman makes, and I think that we agree, but the form must be standard if the signature is to appear in the right place to be read by the computer and then to be cross-referenced to the information on the signature that is held on the register, so that people can check that they are the same. I presume that the same is true for the date of birth, as well as for the name. I imagine that it would be impossible for the computer to read that information if it did not appear in a standard place.
The Minister has said that a simple keying process would deal with that problem, but manual keying processes should be avoided as far as possible, given that 10,000 application forms may have to be checked at the last moment. The Minister will want to consider the issue further. He has had a fairly rough evening so far and I rely on him to reconsider the issue, so I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Order for Third Reading read.
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.
The Bill has remained largely unchanged since its introduction. [Interruption.] For the edification of Mr. Trimble, I was merely stating a fact. The Bill will give effect to the proposals in the White Paper "Combating Electoral Fraud in Northern Ireland", and will provide the chief electoral officer for Northern Ireland with additional powers to address the problem of electoral fraud.
In recent years, there has been growing concern about the perceived level of electoral malpractice in Northern Ireland. Electoral fraud is a crime and the Government are determined to combat it wherever it occurs.
The Bill represents a broadly acceptable, workable and fair set of proposals to combat electoral fraud. It is the culmination of a great deal of work by, and extensive consultation with, the Northern Ireland political parties and the chief electoral officer.
I take this opportunity to pay tribute once again to my predecessor, my hon. Friend Mr. Howarth, for his work on this issue in his time at the Northern Ireland Office. I also pay tribute to all my former colleagues on the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs. Its report made an important contribution to the thinking behind the Bill, as did the work of other bodies such as the Northern Ireland Forum. However, it should not be a criticism of the Bill that it does not implement all the Select Committee's recommendations.
The Bill is the result of extensive consultation. When taking measures to prevent electoral fraud, we have to ensure that we do not put obstacles in the path of genuine voters. Only if we do that will the measures that we take be acceptable to the House and to the people of Northern Ireland.
As I said earlier, the Bill's purpose is to provide the chief electoral officer for Northern Ireland with additional powers to address the problem of electoral fraud there. In the debate on Second Reading, in meetings with political parties before the Committee Stage and in Committee itself, I have continued to listen carefully to all proposals and suggestions that have been made to me and that hon. Members have argued will improve this Bill.
I thank colleagues for the hard work that they put into tabling amendments and for the robust and civilised debates that we have had on a wide range of topics. I know that colleagues are as keen as I am to tackle successfully the problem of electoral fraud in Northern Ireland.
We amended the provisions relating to absent voting. Originally, the Bill stated that applications to vote by post or by proxy must be signed and that the signature on the application must correspond with the signature provided to the chief electoral officer on registration. Now an application for a postal or proxy vote for either an indefinite period or for a particular parliamentary election will have to include an elector's signature and date of birth. Both will have to correspond with the signature and date of birth supplied by the elector on registration. Similarly, a postal ballot paper will have to be signed and an elector will have to state his date of birth or that ballot paper will not be deemed to be duly returned.
I will continue to reflect on a number of points that hon. Members have made during the Bill's passage and I will consider carefully, with the chief electoral officer, whether those suggestions would help our efforts to combat fraud and improve the electoral system in Northern Ireland.
I have already indicated my willingness to explore other possible forms of photographic identification that may be used at the polling station. I hope that the Translink smart card, which will be issued to all those aged 65 and over in Northern Ireland from April next year, will meet the security requirements that will enable me to add it to the list of specified documents.
I have written to the political parties in Northern Ireland to ask for their views on whether there might be value in including in the annual canvass form—or any other application to be included on the electoral register in Northern Ireland—a question asking an elector whether they were registered or intended to register at another address. I will continue to explore further ways in which data held by other organisations might be used to combat fraud.
We will consider all these issues, and others that are suggested to us, carefully and with an open mind. The Bill and other measures that have already been taken by the chief electoral officer respond to calls from within Northern Ireland itself and from parties across the political spectrum.
The Bill sends a clear signal to those people intent on committing electoral fraud that it is a crime that the Government are determined to combat. We have a duty to protect the electors of Northern Ireland's right to free and fair elections. The Bill does that by countering electoral abuse directly and at every stage of the electoral process. However, we will not prevent genuine voters from making their voices heard.
Tonight, I have heard people arguing that a strict timetable should be imposed for the implementation of certain features of this Bill, but I hope that they now see that such a measure would not necessarily assist the joint aim of interdicting electoral abuse while not preventing genuine voters from making their voices heard.
I am happy to reassure the House yet again that the measures in the Bill will be implemented as soon as is practicable, and our target for the removal of all forms of non-photographic identification will remain May 2003. However, we will take all the necessary steps to ensure that no one is disfranchised because of the proposals contained in the Bill.
In all our discussions with the Northern Ireland political parties, we have been constantly reminded of the need to proceed in a careful and considered manner. The Bill has maintained cross-party support thus far because it contains carefully thought-out, workable measures to address the specific problems in the Northern Ireland electoral process. It strikes the right balance between limiting the opportunity for abuse and putting obstacles in the path of genuine voters. I commend it to the House.
The Minister began by saying that the Bill had been largely unchanged since its introduction. That does not merit self-congratulation, let alone complacent self-congratulation; instead, it is of considerable concern to everyone inside and outside the House who cares about how this place works.
The Government have used their massive majority to override the combined suggestions based on the separate wisdom and experience of every other party in the House, including those from Northern Ireland. Unfortunately, Northern Ireland parties rarely find a consensus, but they have this time, and the Government will not listen to them because they have a massive parliamentary majority and do not care. That is shameful. This is not an attractive episode or an edifying moment in Parliament. The phrase that the Minister used should weigh on his conscience.
I do not think that the Minister is personally responsible for the way in which the legislation has been treated. It is not a case of his being personally arrogant or obtuse; he merely reflects the culture and frame of mind into which the Government have fallen after more than four and a half years of taking for granted a massive parliamentary majority and using a regiment of spin doctors who believe that they can manipulate the press with impunity. They believe that they can close their minds to every other influence and insight that is available and that should be brought to bear in the formulation of legislation. It has not been a good evening for Parliament or the Minister. He was having to thrash around to find excuses for the position that he is forced to defend.
The first group of amendments dealt with the deadline for introducing photographic identification in Northern Ireland. A deadline is not a matter of principle or even substance; it is an administrative matter. However, the Minister was forced to concede that there were no administrative objections to having a deadline. He said that he had to consult before he could accept the proposal. As the Government consult only on matters of substance and principle, the consultation is immaterial to the acceptance of deadlines. He lost credibility by taking that line.
We also debated the declaration of multiple addresses when someone chooses to register at different addresses for the purposes of an election. The Minister got out of an awkward spot in Committee by promising to consult in time for the debate on Report, but he told us today that he did not have time to consult properly, so he has contradicted himself.
We also discussed using national insurance numbers to protect against electoral fraud in Northern Ireland. We were told that the Minister took a different view when he was a Back Bencher on the Northern Ireland Affairs Select Committee. Once again, he has contradicted himself. That is a serious state of affairs, especially for someone in public life and with accountable responsibilities. To manage to contradict oneself twice during the proceedings of the same Bill in the same evening is unfortunate. I can only feel sorry for him, but when he accepted the role of spokesman for a Government who act in such a fashion, he committed himself to suffering those humiliations. None of us feels the same degree of personal sympathy for him as we would for any other human being in similarly invidious circumstances.
Despite the fact that I sincerely mean everything that I have said so far, I want to end on a serious but positive note. It would be perverse of the Opposition to vote against Third Reading. If we can get a whole loaf of bread, we will take it, but we will accept half, three quarters or one quarter of a loaf if that is all we can get. We shall continue to battle here, in the other place and elsewhere, but for now we will accept the Bill as a positive contribution to the workings of democracy in Northern Ireland.
The Bill has appeared at a moment of high drama in the Province. Last week, we heard encouraging news of the first act of decommissioning by Sinn Fein-IRA. Although there is a constitutional crisis, we hope that it will be resolved this Friday—
I was only touching briefly on the context in which the Bill will proceed to the other place and thereafter—in an improved form, we hope—on to the statute book.
Now is an opportune time to reflect on the way in which democracy works in Northern Ireland—its mechanisms and safeguards. We all hope that from the context that I briefly described will emerge a rosier future for democracy, and that people will have greater confidence in the devolved institutions of Northern Ireland and their ability to meet the aspirations of the electorate. Now is a good time to debate such a Bill as this.
It is obvious that among Northern Ireland's many problems is an unfortunate tradition of electoral abuse and fraud more prevalent than is usual elsewhere in the United Kingdom. Northern Ireland Members on both sides of the House have, with their characteristic frankness and honesty, accepted that fact. It lies with us to do something about it, and we are doing so. We are improving the system, albeit not as fully as we wanted to while the Bill was in the Commons. I believe that today we have made a contribution to improving the prospects for the people of the Province and their public life to which the whole House is strongly attached.
The Bill deals with electoral fraud, so the objective should be to introduce measures to curb electoral fraud in Northern Ireland. There is no doubt that fraud exists, nor about some of the ways in which it is perpetrated.
Toward the end of Committee stage, figures were given on the abnormally high—in relation to other constituencies—number of absent votes cast in certain constituencies in Northern Ireland. There is no doubt, too, that in those constituencies—I have in mind Fermanagh and South Tyrone, Mid–Ulster and West Tyrone—a significant proportion of the absent votes cast are fraudulent. It is likely that the fraudulent votes in those three constituencies are sufficient to account for the results, and that if we had honest voting and honest elections in Northern Ireland, fewer Sinn Fein Members would be returned to serve here—although, of course, they do not serve here.
I am sure that if there had been an honest election in Fermanagh and South Tyrone, Sinn Fein would not have won, and that the person who ought to be and is the true Member of Parliament for that constituency—my colleague Mr. Cooper, who fell victim to the fraud of Sinn Fein, which was assisted by the Democratic Unionist party's choosing to run a candidate in that constituency—would be here tonight.
On Second Reading, my hon. Friend David Burnside mentioned the election petition that was then outstanding in respect of that case. Of course, the matter could not be pursued because the case was sub judice. Since then, the election court has made its decision, and I want to share with the House just a few phrases that it used about the conduct of the election and of Sinn Fein in that constituency. The judge referred to "extremely reprehensible" incidents. He said that
"nothing can excuse the scenes of threatening intimidation which took place . . . Such behaviour"— meaning that of Sinn Fein—
"is the negation of a parliamentary democracy."
He then referred to the disturbance in St. Martin's school, Garrison, a polling station where votes were cast well after 10 o'clock. The court said that the disturbance was
"serious and intolerable, but it was an isolated incident".
That last phrase was accurate in terms of the evidence given to the court, but it is not true. It was not an isolated incident.
After the election petition was lodged within 21 days, as it had to be, in the first week of August, there was reliable and credible information that voting had continued at the polling station at St. Joseph's primary school, Ederney, for a period of approximately 10 minutes and that one of the police personnel present was prepared to appear in court and confirm it. However, because that information was not available earlier, it could not be included in the election petition, and consequently it could not be presented to the court. There is every reason to believe that if that evidence had been given to the court, the result of the petition would have been different.
I referred to that incident to bring out two simple points. First, the rules about election petitions inhibit the giving of evidence. Evidence could not be given in that case because the rules were unduly restrictive. Secondly, and more importantly, the information that became available after the petition was made should have been available beforehand; it was known to the electoral office, but was not conveyed to anyone. We are considering a Bill on electoral fraud that tries to strengthen the law. The primary responsibility of the electoral office in Northern Ireland ought to be to ensure that the system operates properly and fairly but, disturbingly, when we tried to deal with clear misconduct in the election, our experience was that it was not concerned with bringing out the truth or exposing wrongdoing. It was more concerned with trying to show that everything had been okay and that nothing had really happened. Indeed, its attitude was one of trying to cover up the bad behaviour of Sinn Fein and breaches of electoral law.
Will the Minister reflect on that? If he likes, we can give him more detail about what happened. Will he consider carefully what measures can be introduced in the Bill to ensure that the electoral office carries out its duties properly and sees its first duty as ensuring that the law is observed? If that means ensuring that information is put into the public domain that assists the making of a petition, the office should do so and not try to cover up matters, which was the approach taken in this case.
There is an opportunity in another place to strengthen the Bill further. The Minister congratulated himself on the minimal changes that have been made, but he should try to consult the parties properly, listen to what we have to say and introduce proposals that ensure that electoral law is observed properly and that we get honest results. That would be a significant achievement, and the Minister could then congratulate himself.
As I said at the beginning of the Committee stage, in my many years as Liberal Democrat Northern Ireland spokesperson, I have seen Ministers come and go, each more brilliant than the last. Looking at the Minister, I can honestly say that I see a very nice man. Frustratingly, however, he does not listen. As other Members have said, I heard him congratulate himself on the fact that the Bill has changed very little; that made me think of an iron fist in a velvet glove, frightening Labour Back Benchers into supporting things which, if they had reflected for a moment, they would not have supported.
In the Chamber, the majorities in votes on this matter have been large, but in Committee, many Divisions were nine votes against eight. In terms of political parties, the Minister was losing votes by five parties to one on many of the arguments. Mr. Robinson made the point that cross-community support has been garnered for many ideas which the Government have rejected. As a consequence, the Bill will not be as good as it could have been with the benefit of that input.
With regard to national insurance numbers, the Minister once again failed to justify his refusal to adopt the proposals made by so many people and so many parties. We had a debate on bar codes, then he had the audacity to say that we should now see that our proposals were unhelpful, but his arguments were not particularly robust. On time scale, his desire for flexibility made him inflexible in dealing with our proposals. Any business would set a time scale and regard that as a proactive gesture that would focus the team to achieve the launch date that had been outlined.
I have learned a great deal in the debate. I have learned that although she challenged me on whether I know my national insurance number, Shona McIsaac knows hers by heart. I hope that the shame that she must now feel will cause her to encourage the Minister to think again. I have learned that our winning some of the arguments was insufficient to cause the Minister to think again. That is a matter of concern. I have also learned that there is cross-party support for the essence of the Bill. On occasions, that cross-party support, at least on the Floor of this House, has not been sufficient to convince the Minister to think again.
On balance, the Bill is good, but it could be even better. On balance, the Bill will have an impact, but not the full impact that it could have had with those further proposals. There is work to be done in another place, and no doubt the Government will be challenged on some of the familiar territory that we covered in Committee and on the Floor of the House. I congratulate the Minister on his ever-patient and ever-pleasant demeanour. In the words of Arnie Schwarzenegger, "We'll be back."
This is an important Bill to eradicate the scourge that has persisted for many years in the democratic system in Northern Ireland. It could have gone a wee bit further, but it is difficult to achieve a compromise between securing the integrity of the voter and not preventing legitimate voters from exercising their right. We will revisit many of these matters.
I do not agree with the Minister's comment at the start that no change has been made during the passage of the Bill. There may be no change in the wording of the Bill, but the Official Report of the Committee and the debate tonight is riddled with promises and undertakings, which the Minister will have to live up to, after he persuaded us to withdraw our amendments. We will hold him to that.
I offer the Minister, his predecessor and their current and past staff a great deal of thanks for the many, many hours of consultation that they gave us and other parties. However, the Minister did not take on board the fact that we and other parties in Northern Ireland had a unity of purpose and a unity of mind that were unique. He should have grasped the historic moment when it was available to him.
This has been an important debate on an important Bill. I am only sorry that despite the many promises that were made by the Government and the previous Government to bring the matter to the Floor of the House sooner, and the consultation that was carried out, we have had to wait until now for the Bill to appear. We may need such legislation much sooner than envisaged in view of some of comments about the Assembly elections that are due in May 2003. Many people in Northern Ireland would welcome that prospect.
It is important that as well as new legislation to strengthen provisions against fraud, the necessary resources are made available to the chief electoral officer. We may have new provisions, but if we do not have the resources to implement them, we will be no better off. Lack of resources for the chief electoral officer has been one of the problems in tackling electoral fraud in Northern Ireland. One of the things that has struck me—
It being 10 o'clock, Mr. Speaker put the Question already proposed from the Chair, pursuant to Order [
Question agreed to.
Bill accordingly read a Third time, and passed.