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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 9:40 pm on 31st October 2001.

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Photo of Quentin Davies Quentin Davies Shadow Secretary of State, Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland 9:40 pm, 31st October 2001

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—