Clause 2 - Dates of birth and ballot papers

Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 5:15 pm on 16 October 2001.

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Photo of Eddie McGrady Eddie McGrady Social Democratic and Labour Party, South Down 5:15, 16 October 2001

I beg to move amendment No. 19, in page 3, line 1, at end insert—

`(za) in paragraph (1A), after ``document'' there is inserted ``and supplied his signature''.'.

Photo of Jimmy Hood Jimmy Hood Chair, European Scrutiny Committee, Chair, European Scrutiny Committee

With this we may take new clause 5—Requirement for signature before issue of ballot paper—

`(1) Schedule 1 to the Representation of the People Act 1983 (parliamentary election rules) is amended as follows.

(2) After rule 35 there is inserted—

``35A.—(1) A person applying as an elector shall sign his name before he is issued with a ballot paper.

(2) The presiding officer may dispense with the requirement in paragraph (1) above in relation to any applicant if he is satisfied that it is not reasonably practicable for that person to sign in a consistent and distinctive way because of any incapacity of his.''.'.

Photo of Eddie McGrady Eddie McGrady Social Democratic and Labour Party, South Down

Amendment No. 19 would require that when a would-be voter is proffered a ballot paper, in addition to producing the documents that provide the read-across under the Bill, the apparent age will be reflected against the register's age data. I put that badly and if I may I shall start again. The additional requirement in place of the two proposed in the Bill is important. The would-be voter has to produce a document and the apparent age of the voter is compared with the data supplied by the chief electoral officer. Correspondence is sought.

When amendments Nos. 29 and 30 were debated, the Minister said that he hoped that good progress would be made with digitisation and computerisation of signatures. Much was made in earlier debates about the fact that two additional pieces of information were required—the date of birth and the signature made in applying for a vote.

Under the amendments, the signature on the application form would have to coincide with that of the person asking for the vote at the polling station, who would sign for their vote. I am immediately conscious of the logistical problems that might arise if that process was not well managed—perhaps the bottleneck would grow even greater than it was at the last election—but with the right manpower and management, our objective could be achieved.

I should like to know if at any time it is intended that the signature on the application form to be registered as a voter will be stored electronically other than when a person applies for an absent vote, be it proxy or postal. With all the trouble that we are taking, quite correctly, to have signatures on applications for votes, to store them electronically and to have them available to the electoral officer, both centrally and presumably at polling stations, would it not be logical to ask someone to sign for their vote and immediately scan the signature for accuracy using the electronic database? With the Committee's permission, the Minister's reply will determine whether I press the amendment.

Photo of Crispin Blunt Crispin Blunt Shadow Spokesperson (Northern Ireland)

I shall speak to new clause 5 and I am working on the assumption that it would have precisely the same effect as amendment No. 19. I hope that I have understood that amendment correctly and that it is not simply asking for an additional check to be available to the presiding officer at a polling station if there is doubt about whether the person presenting themselves is the person on the registration. I assume that the amendment would make it automatic for everyone to have to sign when they received the ballot paper, which is also the purpose of new clause 5. If the Committee were minded to accept the amendments, the most appropriate vehicle for placing the requirement in the legislation could be chosen.

The fact that the hon. Member for South Down and I have taken two different approaches to the same problem is another eloquent testimony to the need for a consolidation Bill. Trying to find one's way from one part of the legislation to another is immensely complicated. Four or five Acts are now involved, so a consolidation exercise is badly needed.

I shall now deal with the detail of the amendment, and this is a simple issue. If the Bill is passed, the signatures of everyone who applies to go on the register in Northern Ireland will be collected. As the Minister said, they will be recorded not only on the registration form but, in time, electronically. Currently, the only cross-check between signatures will be for people applying for absent votes. If we required people to sign for their ballot paper at polling stations, they would know that at some stage a check could be made. It would not necessarily be made there and then if they passed the other tests and had created a false identity sufficient to personate successfully in the polling station, but they would know that there could be a test of signature against signature at another stage. That would give the people hunting down electoral fraud a much greater ability to bring people to justice for defrauding the electoral system in that way.

Putting that provision on the statute book and making known the fact would be the biggest deterrent to personation in the polling station. We have debated medical cards, the ability of organisations to produce false ones and the use of photographic identity cards to combat that. To make people sign for the ballot paper would make it conclusive, closing off completely the potential for fraud when people go to cast their vote illegally for someone else.

I will be interested to hear the Minister's comments on the logistics and, as the hon. Member for South Down mentioned, to see what difficulties such a move would entail for polling stations. Logistical problems could be properly overcome and, if it is not too difficult an exercise to mount, the Committee should consider the amendment.

Photo of Peter Robinson Peter Robinson DUP, Belfast East

As I understood it, the distinction between amendment No. 19 and new clause 5 was that amendment No. 19 would require a signature only if it were requested by the presiding officer and some doubt was expressed about an individual's identity. I am not sure whether that is true. I have only one concern about the impact of requiring every elector to sign, which relates to difficulties in the polling station.

Most hon. Members found valuable the survey results that the Minister forwarded to provide us with some background information from the 7 June election. One noticeable factor was that there were some areas in Northern Ireland where, although people had presented themselves at polling stations before 10 o'clock at night, they were not able to vote. If the issue had been one of electoral fraud, I would have tabled an amendment to the effect that a person who presents themselves at a polling station before the close of poll should be allowed to vote, even if they were physically to vote after 10 o'clock. The inefficiency of the electoral office in providing the necessary number of booths or staff should not be a determining factor in whether one can exercise one's franchise.

It is also clear from the survey that the overwhelming majority of people who were questioned shared that view. In one area of Castlereagh, in Newtownbreda, which is a middle class area of Northern Ireland, we saw something approaching riots because people had to queue for hours during the day and many were unable to vote because the queues had not diminished by 10 o'clock. The amendment might cause a further delaying factor that could be a disincentive for people coming out or ensure that some people were not be able to vote. I recognise that not every election will be as awkward as that of 7 June, when we had a proportional representation local government election running parallel with a first-past-the-post Westminster election, but the factor causes concern. That would be diminished considerably if this were simply a question of the presiding officer asking for a signature when there is some doubt about the identity of the individual. A signature would be required significantly fewer times, and the measure would be not as problematical.

Photo of Des Browne Des Browne Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Northern Ireland Office, Parliamentary Secretary (Northern Ireland Office) 5:30, 16 October 2001

I should point out at the outset that, as I understand it, the effects of both amendment No. 19 and new clause 5 are the same—to require all potential voters to provide a signature to check against the one supplied at registration. Until now, I had firmly believed that there was total consensus on the view that photographic identification would be the biggest deterrent to personation in the polling stations. A serious breach in that consensus might be worrying. However, until now, nobody has seriously argued in any documents that I have read or in any conversations or discussions in which I have taken part that we should add a requirement for a signature. The view was that if everyone who presents themselves to vote at a polling station provides secure photographic identification, that would be the best deterrent to personation.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Belfast, East for drawing attention to the electoral research project, conducted by the Northern Ireland Office, into the combined elections that took place on 7 June 2001. I am sorry that I was not able to provide the results of that research and evaluation earlier to members of the Committee. As it is, the order was accelerated to make the report available, and I am grateful to research and evaluation services for agreeing to do that. I, too, have had limited opportunity—only 24 hours or so more than members of the Committee—to digest it.

The report is full of helpful information. It clearly identifies some of the problems that the hon. Member for Belfast, East mentioned. I have significant sympathy for his view, although it is not the law, that people who are queuing to vote at the polling station before 10 o'clock are not at fault if the system cannot cope and get them through before 10 o'clock. It is the Government's duty to provide sufficient resources to ensure that that does not happen. It is difficult to criticise people who present themselves before the poll closes but are then denied their vote. I agree that the criticism ought to be of the system.

The Northern Ireland Office and the chief electoral officer will take other practical lessons on board in respect of deployment of resources to ensure that the minimum number of difficulties are put in the way of those who wish to vote in future elections. I give that assurance as the Minister.

I resist the amendments because I do not want to add to those burdens and for some of the reasons articulated by the hon. Member for Belfast, East. In my view, the amendments would create unnecessary difficulties for the elector and would undoubtedly impede the smooth running of the poll. I have spoken repeatedly about the need to ensure that, in preventing fraud, we do not set up too many hurdles for the voter. Otherwise, the simple fact is that people will be prevented from exercising their right to vote.

The amendments would considerably slow down the voting process, because election staff would have to check signatures as well as identity documents. Furthermore, there would inevitably be differences of opinion about whether the signature was true. A photograph is clear proof of identity, but a signature might not be. I can envisage confrontation between individual voters and election staff if there is disagreement about whether the signatures match. Such confrontation would be unnecessary, given the level and nature of identification that will be required of voters.

Photo of Crispin Blunt Crispin Blunt Shadow Spokesperson (Northern Ireland)

It was certainly not my intention that there should be an immediate check of the signature given by the elector against the signature held electronically on the register or physically on paper. That comparison would not be possible—I doubt that the information would be available in the polling station. However, voters would know that their signature had been recorded and that the chief electoral officer would be able to make a comparison subsequently. The time required would simply be a question of how long it took the elector to sign a piece of paper that was pushed across to him or her.

Photo of Des Browne Des Browne Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Northern Ireland Office, Parliamentary Secretary (Northern Ireland Office)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making that distinction. However, it seems to me that the purpose of any checks on identity made in the polling station should be to deter people from seeking to impersonate others and to steal other people's votes. Therefore, while it may be of advantage to have a retrospective check in certain circumstances, if that is what it is to be used for, we might add greatly to the burden on those who have to work at the polls and administer them for us. We will have to take the time to identify and map those that we want to go back and check. In any event, I am satisfied—and, up until now, it appeared to me that there was a consensus—that the true deterrent to personation would be the secure photographic identification document.

The requirement for a signature, if it is only for retrospective checking or if it is a precondition that it should be checked against the signature held in the register before a ballot paper can be issued, will slow down the poll and generate potential for unnecessary confrontation between those who are working at the poll and voters. It will not add significantly to our ability to deter people from personation or our ability to check identities. Under our proposals, individuals will have to produce photographic identification, and the presiding officer will be able to put a new statutory question in cases of doubt in order to confirm date of birth. It would be an unnecessary extra burden on voters to ask them to provide a signature before being issued with a ballot paper. The measures that we propose will be effective in their own right in preventing fraud. That has been the unanimous view until now.

On the specific point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for South Down about our intention in relation to signatures, it will be clear from my contribution that the Government do not intend to extend the checking of signatures to help identify those in polling stations who put their eggs in the basket of photographic identification. However, given a register that has signatures, dates of birth and photographs, if it becomes necessary in the future, which we do not believe that it will, the resource will be there. Currently, however, the signatures will be used to check absent votes, and the identity of those applying for them. Photographic identification will be the way in which we will identify voters in polling stations. I hope that those words of reassurance will persuade the hon. Gentleman to withdraw the amendment.

Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Liberal Democrat, Montgomeryshire

Before the hon. Member for South Down summates, I want to ask him how the information would be used, which is a concern to which the Minister alluded. If the information is to be used retrospectively, it would be of limited benefit in terms of the outcome of an election. I say that because, unless one is willing to fish out the offending votes after they have all been counted and alter the outcome of the election, it might provide evidence of fraud but it would not necessarily help us to right that wrong when it really matters—during the election.

Mr. McGrady rose—

Mr. Blunt rose—

Photo of Crispin Blunt Crispin Blunt Shadow Spokesperson (Northern Ireland)

On the assumption that if I allowed you to pass over me, Mr. Hood, I might not be called after the hon. Member for South Down has spoken, I shall make my points, and he will be able to pick up the bits that I have left behind.

The information will not, of course, immediately confirm a signature on the day of an election, because the polling staff will not be in a position to make those checks. However, it would have the effect of being almost a complete deterrent. If one knew that a permanent record of one's signature could be tested against that, the authorities could go back and check that the signatures match.

Photo of Des Browne Des Browne Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Northern Ireland Office, Parliamentary Secretary (Northern Ireland Office)

It is important for the hon. Gentleman to address the circumstances in which he thinks that the deterrent would work. It would have to deter somebody who had gone to the trouble of getting a forged passport, a forged driving licence, a forged Translink card and made him or herself look over 65 to justify that or, alternatively, a forged electoral identity card. I do not know if the hon. Gentleman is seriously trying to persuade the Committee that a person who would go to all that trouble would baulk at putting a signature on a piece of paper. If he thinks that they would, it may be a deterrent but, frankly, I do not think that it is.

Photo of Crispin Blunt Crispin Blunt Shadow Spokesperson (Northern Ireland)

If the Minister had been able to restrain himself, it would have become clear that I do not intend to press the matter to a Division.

If a person is able to get away with the issue of photographic identification, one assumes that the polling staff would be able to make a careful check. However, people were able to walk into the Ministry of Defence, during my time as a special adviser there, with a Crystal Palace supporter's card rather than the necessary identification. Therefore, occasions when people may use incorrect identification to get into places where they should not show that polling staff, who may be under great pressure with a large queue of people outside, may not be able to hold the card up to the light and ensure that the voter is the person shown on the card. Of course, once that test is gone, it is gone. It cannot be brought back and checked later. That would be the benefit of a signature test.

Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Liberal Democrat, Montgomeryshire

There is an even more profound difficulty than that outlined by the Minister. If it can be proved after an election that a person has claimed to be somebody other than who they are, they are unlikely to have left their real address so that the police can apprehend them. In fact, there is no way to trace the cheat in the first place.

Photo of Crispin Blunt Crispin Blunt Shadow Spokesperson (Northern Ireland)

The point at issue is that at an election such as that in Fermanagh and South Tyrone, which was decided by 53 votes, or in any election that has the potential to be decided by one or two votes anywhere or in the event of an accusation of widespread fraud, the proposal would provide a way of returning to the record and saying that in the course of the election a number of people voted who should not have done. The courts would then decide whether, on the basis of the evidence, the election should stand or another election should be called. In such circumstances, the result would be addressed.

I listened to the Minister and I take on board his assurance that we should rely on photographic evidence in the first instance and hope that that works. He said that if it becomes necessary to use signatures, they are on the registration forms and could be an issue that the Government would address. I am happy to rest on that assurance.

Photo of Eddie McGrady Eddie McGrady Social Democratic and Labour Party, South Down

I thank the Minister and hon. Members for their comments on the amendment. I shudder to think that there would be an extension of the problem that occurred during the last election, which was referred to by the hon. Member for Belfast, East, when some of my constituents queued for over an hour to vote. There were various remedies applied for who was eligible to vote and who was not. Sometimes, those in the building or within the grounds were allowed to vote after 10 pm, and those outside the grounds were not. There were a varied set of circumstances and we do not want to exacerbate problems for the voter or for staff of the electoral office.

The amendment's purpose was to create a deterrent for a would-be fraudulent vote claimer. It is important to remember that it is the representative of the political party who must make the challenge. I assumed that it would be an additional benefit to that person, who is not covered by any legal protection for wrongful arrest, which is the ultimate penalty for calling it wrong. People would be reluctant to fully challenge someone with being a wrong voter, as they could be subject to a charge of illegal arrest if the situation were to reach that point.

I thought that a signature could also be requested, so that it could be checked after the election to see if an act of fraud had been perpetrated. I welcomed the Minister's comments about the paramount importance of photo-identity, and his reassurance that resources will be made available. However, I am concerned about what will happen in the period before the introduction of universal photo-identity, either by way of ID cards for electoral purposes, or other forms of acceptable photo-identity. For a considerable time in the future the medical card and the social benefit card will be employed.

Photo of Des Browne Des Browne Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Northern Ireland Office, Parliamentary Secretary (Northern Ireland Office) 5:45, 16 October 2001

I am reluctant to intervene, as the hon. Gentleman is clearly coming to the end of his speech, and I have sought to persuade him to conclude, but I cannot allow his representation of what is likely to happen in the future to remain on the record without correcting it. It is not the Government's intention to have an interregnum when non-photographic identification will be accepted. The legislation is intended to create the architecture wherein the non-photographic identification can be removed and replaced by a requirement for photographic identification, either photographic identification provided by the voter from documents that the Government are satisfied are secure—and the Committee will be told in detail about that in the future—or a secure electoral identification card that will be issued on a voluntary basis to those who do not have the other documents. The timetable for achieving that is not in the Bill, but the infrastructure is, and I will refer again to that matter at a later date. A situation will not arise in which the criticised documents remain as identity documents after the Bill is enacted.

Photo of Eddie McGrady Eddie McGrady Social Democratic and Labour Party, South Down

I am grateful for that very long intervention, as it clarified a misunderstanding with regard, not to the wording of the Bill, but to the Government's intentions on the matter under discussion. Subsequent amendments can now be aborted due to what the Minister has just said, which has come as news to me because I understood that the ID card provision, allied to other photographic identification, would be issued to only certain categories of people after an application had been made and the electoral officer had deemed it appropriate to issue the card. If that is not the case, and, instead, we are going to have complete photo-identity at the polls, I can happily forget the rather complex set up that I was contemplating for my constituency. I will read and re-read what the Minister has said in this context, and I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 2 ordered to stand part of the Bill.