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Clause 3 — Absent votes and declarations of identity

Part of Orders of the Day — Election Fraud (Northern Ireland) Bill – in the House of Commons at 9:33 pm on 31st October 2001.

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Photo of Des Browne Des Browne Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Northern Ireland Office, Parliamentary Secretary (Northern Ireland Office) 9:33 pm, 31st October 2001

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.