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.