Clause 2 - Dates of birth and ballot papers

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

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Photo of Crispin Blunt Crispin Blunt Shadow Spokesperson (Northern Ireland) 5:15 pm, 16th October 2001

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.