Clause 2 - Dates of birth and ballot papers

Part of Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 5:30 pm on 16th October 2001.

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

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.