Clause 6 - Offences

Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 4:30 pm on 18th October 2001.

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Photo of Des Browne Des Browne Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Northern Ireland Office, Parliamentary Secretary (Northern Ireland Office) 4:30 pm, 18th October 2001

I beg to move Government amendment No. 49, in page 5, line 25, after 'made', insert 'to him'.

My contribution on the amendment will be short. The amendment is not essential, but is desirable. It is a tidying-up amendment that makes proposed new subsection (2) of proposed new section 13D of the Representation of the People Act 1983 as inserted by the clause consistent with proposed new subsection (1).

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

The Minister says that the amendment is not essential but is desirable. I tried to follow him. My notes say, ``What is the effect of this?''. I am still none the wiser. That may be my fault, but I should be grateful if the Minister would explain the consequences of adding ``to him''.

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

The consequence of adding ``to him'' is that instead of the phrase ``application made'', we have the phrase ``application made to him''. I hope that that is clear enough.

Amendment agreed to.

Photo of Peter Robinson Peter Robinson DUP, Belfast East

I beg to move amendment No. 8, in page 5, line 32, at end add—

`13 Multiple registration`(1)

Any person who—

(a) registers as an elector in more than one parliamentary constituency; or

(b) registers as an elector in more than one local government area,

is guilty of an offence.

(2) A person guilty of an offence under this section shall be liable on summary conviction to—

(a) imprisonment for a term not exceeding six months; or

(b) a fine not exceeding level 5 on the standard scale,

or to both.'.

Photo of Sir David Amess Sir David Amess Conservative, Southend West

With this we may take the following amendments:

No. 9, in page 5, line 32, at end add—

`13 Multiple registration`(1)

Any person who—

(a) registers as an elector in more than one parliamentary constituency; or

(b) registers as an elector in more than one local government area,

is guilty of an offence.

No. 11, in title, line 9, leave out

`in relation to voters with disabilities'.

New clause 4—Multiple voting at local government elections—

(2) A person guilty of an offence under this section shall be liable on summary conviction to—

(a) imprisonment for a term not exceeding six months; or

(b) a fine not exceeding level 5 on the standard scale,

or to both

New clause 8—Registration: notification of multiple voting—

`(1) In section 10 of the Representation of the People Act 1983 (maintenance of registers: annual canvass) there is inserted—

``(5A). The information to be obtained by the use of such a form for the purposes of a canvass in Northern Ireland shall include an indication of any other address at which the person is registered.''

(2) In section 10A (maintenance of the registers: registration of electors) and in section 13A (alteration of registers) of the 1983 Act there is inserted—

``( ). An application for registration in respect of an address in Northern Ireland shall include an indication of any other address at which the person is registered.''

(3) Any person knowlingly giving false information in response to any requirement of this section is guilty of an offence with liability on summary conviction to—

(a) imprisonment for a term not exceeding six months; or

(b) a fine not exceeding level 5 on the standard scale,

or to both.'.

Photo of Peter Robinson Peter Robinson DUP, Belfast East

I shall speak to all the amendments and new clauses standing in my name.

We are dealing with two issues—multiple registration and multiple voting. There was both discussion and confusion about them on Second Reading. I was among the confused, but I deserve no punishment as it will soon be understood how such confusion arose. From correspondence and discussions with the Minister and his officials I have learnt that as a result of paragraph (9D) of schedule 9 of the Electoral Law (Northern Ireland) Act 1962—Stormont legislation—Northern Irish electors were denied a vote in more than one electoral area in any local government election. People in the United Kingdom who lived in more than one residence in different district council areas could enjoy more than one vote. ``One man, one vote'' and other civil rights issues led to changes in Northern Ireland legislation. It was understood by the general public in Northern Ireland that—whether for parliamentary, European or council elections—they had only one vote. Those who wanted to happily went to the polls in every subsequent election and exercised their franchise on that basis.

That applied until the Minister got to his feet on Second Reading and we discovered that something different had happened. Although no one was aware of it at the time, it happened in 1987 when, in the Corridors of this House, in a statutory instruments Committee, the Local Elections (Northern Ireland) Order 1987 was passed. The fact that the franchise was being changed was not clearly stated on the legislation or in the explanatory notes.

If one researched further and examined the First Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, one would find that the matter was of such deep interest to the Committee that the Minister managed to sum it up in 24 sentences—about four minutes—and no sentences made any reference to the change in the franchise. The change clearly took place by inadvertence. If it had been done deliberately, more use of the sleight of hand would be expected.

When the issue arose on Second Reading, every Northern Ireland politician present—together with Members who do not represent a Northern Irish constituency but are interested in Northern Ireland matters—assumed that there was no multiple voting in Northern Ireland. Not only did the politicians think that, but when I canvassed opinion among the press corps, an erudite body of people, it was not aware of the change either. I have not consulted all the public, but the many that I have—who would have been happy to exercise a second vote had the opportunity been legally available—were unaware as well. When I spoke to the chief electoral officer and senior members of his staff, I found that the electoral office was also unaware. All its publicity and documentation from past elections made the same assumption—that one is entitled to vote only once in a local government election, however many residences one has. The backcloth against which this debate takes place has been painted.

This will be the first occasion on which the House has taken a decision on the issue based on consideration rather than inadvertence. I was told by the Minister's officials that, although it was considered by a statutory instruments Committee in 1987, there was a fuller debate in 1989 when it was subsumed into more substantial legislation. My research shows that there is no reference to the issue being dealt with anywhere in the Bill, the explanatory notes or, to the best of my knowledge—although I only managed to labour through the Second Reading and Committee stages—the 1989 proceedings. I hope that the Minister will accept that the change appeared without the Northern Ireland political or public strata being aware of it.

We should consider whether it is appropriate, in the circumstances not of 1987 or 1989 but of today or tomorrow, that a right exercised elsewhere in the United Kingdom should be exercised in Northern Ireland. In his correspondence to me, the Minister said that he did not see any reason for departing from the general principle that there should be no taxation without representation, and on that basis, I would be happy to stop taxation in Northern Ireland. However, on the assumption that the Minister believes that the argument is relevant, I will deal with it. The breach has already occurred between taxation and representation, and I will take my circumstances as an example.

I spend thousands of pounds every year paying rates to Belfast city council—I am sure that it uses them wisely—but I do not get a vote. If I had known what the Minister has taught us over the past few weeks, I would still not have a vote because, although I pay tax, it is on business premises. What is the distinction between my spending £3,000 a year on taxation and not getting a vote, and someone spending a couple of hundred pounds on taxation and then getting a vote? Equally, many thousands of people have the right to vote without contributing any taxation. There is no direct correlation between taxation and representation and if that is the best argument that the Minister can produce, he will not be able to convince me on the issue.

The Bill aims to deal with fraud, so I come back to a principle that I touched on earlier. The Minister has strengthened many of the weaknesses in the legislation dealing with electoral law. However, I have no doubt that those who are intent on defrauding the system will look for weaknesses in the new system. Certainly, if I were so disposed to equip my party or myself with fraudulent votes, that is the area that I would look at, as a result of the changes that will take place.

It will be significantly more difficult for people to vote as a result of personating others. I hope that the postal vote system will be tightened up considerably by the measure. However, some people will now be allowed to vote legally in more than one place, and there will be moves to put people on the election register in many different constituencies in Northern Ireland. That will affect district councils more than it will affect anything else, but multiple registration will occur and result in multiple voting, even in parliamentary elections, although not legally.

On that basis, many seats in Northern Ireland will change legitimately. Let us at least recognise that. They will change because, under our proportional representation system, one or two votes—even a fraction of a vote, at a later stage of a count—can determine which of two candidates will be successful. The fact is that students in Belfast who live in Fermanagh, Mid Ulster or Londonderry can now vote in city council elections because they have student quarters in the south Belfast area. They will have an impact on elections in that constituency.

Photo of Peter Robinson Peter Robinson DUP, Belfast East

That depends on one's view of the issue.

I wish that the Minister had been around in those hot and heady days of the early 1960s when the principle of one man, one vote was being enunciated by all. Unionists were being beaten around the head because they were on the wrong side of the issue when the Conservative and Labour parties were both supporting the principle of one man, one vote and changes were taking place to deny those who could vote more than once because of the principle of no taxation without representation. I wish the Minister had been there to take our cause on board.

In the present circumstances, the Minister must recognise that that area will be exploited. In his communication of 12 July, which was sent to several hon. Members, he said that

``Even if a postal vote is not used, there is clearly an advantage in being able to track and monitor those who register more than once, not least to act as a deterrent against wrongdoing.''

The measure proposed by the hon. Member for Reigate should be attractive to the Minister. I believe that I am interpreting its intention correctly when I say that all that is being sought is a requirement that, when filling out a registration form, the householder indicates whether he or any member of the household for which he is registering has registered at another address. That would provide the chief electoral officer and his staff with information that can be cross checked during any review of the election and clearly show whether someone has voted on more than one occasion.

I noted also that the White Paper ``Combating Electoral Fraud in Northern Ireland (CM 5080)'' recommended, in paragraphs 17 to 19, that there should be monitoring of multiple registration. If the need to monitor has been recognised in both the Minister's correspondence and the White Paper, I am sure that the Minister will not want to resist new clause 8. While some of the other amendments in my name are consequential, the two on multiple registration and voting will at least allow the Committee an opportunity that was denied to others in the past of considering this matter and taking a decision on the issue, having considered the merits of the case.

Photo of Crispin Blunt Crispin Blunt Shadow Spokesperson (Northern Ireland) 5:00 pm, 18th October 2001

The Committee should first register its thanks to the hon. Member for Belfast, East for bringing clarity to this area. Ominously, I see the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes) shaking his head. Perhaps it is not as clear as it now appears to me having had the benefit of the exposition from the hon. Member for Belfast, East. It is clarity that the Government must bring to this issue in Northern Ireland. It is right to accept that, following all the controversy in the 1960s about people being able to vote more than once—a controversy that was central to the civil rights movement and one of the issues that had to be rectified—people in Northern Ireland have been under the impression for the last 30 years, correctly for about 17 years of that period, that they were entitled to vote only once in an election.

Now we have discovered, unless the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire corrects us again, that the position in 1987 was changed apparently by accident in this place—[Interruption.] Certainly if it was not changed by accident, it was changed with the electorate in Northern Ireland being wholly unaware of the consequences of the decision here. We are no doubt now going to learn that the hon. Gentleman was on that Committee that considered it.

Photo of Mr Harry Barnes Mr Harry Barnes Labour, North East Derbyshire

The person who was not confused about the situation was the chief electoral officer for Northern Ireland, Mr. Bradley. He gave the information to the Select Committee on which the hon. Member for Belfast, East served. The position should be generally known, at least to some hon. Members.

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

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for pointing that out and for drawing attention to the evidence of Mr. Pat Bradley to the Select Committee, and the Select Committee report itself. There is a case for what the hon. Member for Belfast, East wants to do to bring clarity, which is to outlaw multiple registration, and/or to outlaw multiple voting. That would make it perfectly clear that one could register only once and therefore vote only once or at least vote only once even if one were multiply registered.

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

There is, of course, another way to bring clarity to this and that is to tell the people of Northern Ireland that they have exactly the same rights as all other citizens of the United Kingdom who are of the age to vote.

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

I am grateful to the Minister for that intervention. That is an option. We could leave electoral law in precisely the same condition, or we could choose to make electoral law precisely the same in Northern Ireland as it is in the rest of the United Kingdom. The trouble is that we are considering the Bill in the first place because of the exceptional circumstances under which politics and democracy must be operated in Northern Ireland. We could choose to make the position precisely analogous to that in Great Britain, but what is absent in Great Britain is a political movement that is determined to exploit every potential loophole in the law. On that basis—the reason why we are considering different legislation—the Minister's suggestion should be resisted, as was his conclusion in 1998.

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

There is a distinction between putting in checks and measures in relation to the exercise of the franchise—which are necessary in Northern Ireland given its particular circumstances—and denying people the right to vote that other people in the United Kingdom have. Albeit reluctantly, we are checking the identity of the voters, but no one has any less right to vote in Northern Ireland than he or she has in the rest of the United Kingdom. That they had in the past is no argument for such a position to be restored.

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

I am grateful to the Minister because that is why I tabled new clause 8 and did not add my name to the amendments tabled by the hon. Member for Belfast, East. A perfectly good case can be made to allow the principle of where one can register to be the same in Northern Ireland as it is in the rest of the United Kingdom. The Minister has advanced a good argument against following the route of the hon. Member for Belfast, East and outlawing such action, but we cannot then do nothing.

The Minister will be only too well aware of the conclusion that he reached with other members of the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs in 1998. At paragraph 24 on page xi of the Committee's conclusions, the hon. Gentleman stated:

``We acknowledge that registration in more than one place is a useful right for students and others. Those who have a legitimate reason to register in two or more places should be allowed to do so, but should be under a duty to indicate that they are doing so and where the other registered addresses are.''

I could not agree more. New clause 8 is designed to achieve such an outcome. I look forward to the Minister's explanation as to why new clause 8 should be resisted, as I do to his explanation as to why, now that he is imprisoned within the Executive, his view has changed from what it was when he was a member of the Select Committee after he had given such detailed consideration to such matters.

Photo of Mr Harry Barnes Mr Harry Barnes Labour, North East Derbyshire

Will the hon. Gentleman explain how new clause 8 would provide the outcome referred to in the Select Committee's report? That would allow multiple registration, but there would be a duty on people to say where the multiple registration took place. My understanding of new clause 8 is that it would disallow multiple registration all together.

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

That is not the intention behind new clause 8. It states under subsection (2):

``An application for registration in respect of an address in Northern Ireland shall include an indication of any other address at which the person is registered.''

If a person is already registered at one address and then decides to register at a second address, he must notify on the registration form that he is already registered elsewhere and where that is. If they did not, they would be guilty of an offence. I hope that that is clear. The provision would not make multiple registration an offence; it would make the second, third and fourth registrations an offence if someone failed to identify the addresses at which they had previously been registered.

That is how I understand the effect of new clause 8. I am grateful to see the Minister nodding, which means that, like the hon. Member for Belfast, East, I was right to rely on the expert advice of the Public Bill Office in putting my political intentions into legal language. I register my gratitude to the Clerk.

The Select Committee report made the case eloquently, and new clause 8 would give effect to its recommendation. I hope that the Government will not resist the new clause, because it constitutes an important way of identifying loopholes in the new system, as the hon. Gentleman has said.

Photo of Mr Harry Barnes Mr Harry Barnes Labour, North East Derbyshire

I apologise for becoming confused between new clause 8 and amendment No. 8.

The hon. Member for Belfast, East has explained his confusion as to how the matter arose in a statutory instruments Committee and was not then known in Northern Ireland. However, the situation should be known to several people in the Room, because the chief electoral officer, Mr. Bradley, submitted evidence to the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs for its report on electoral malpractice in Northern Ireland.

The minutes give the membership of the Committee, which included my hon. Friends the Minister and the Member for Reading, West (Mr. Salter), the hon. Members for South Down and for Belfast, East, and me. Paragraph 2.2, entitled ``Multiple voting'', states:

``A person may have more than one residence and thus may be registered at more than one address. Even so it is an offence (Section 61, the 1983 Act) to vote more than once in the same constituency, in more than one constituency at a general election or more than once in the same electoral area at a local government election or in more than one electoral area at such a local election.''

The Minister propounded that position on Second Reading. It was known by the hon. Member for Belfast, East, who is an assiduous attender at Select Committee meetings and examines the matters contained in the evidence.

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

I have now read paragraph 2.2, and it appears to support the contention of the hon. Member for Belfast, East that the chief electoral officer was under the same illusion as to what was allowed as the rest of the population of Northern Ireland. On examination, that view turned out to be incorrect, following the 1987 statutory instrument that was mentioned. That is further evidence of the need for consolidation of legislation.

Photo of Mr Harry Barnes Mr Harry Barnes Labour, North East Derbyshire

I have read out the paragraph, which stated:

``A person may have more than one residence and thus may be registered at more than one address.''

What is that but legitimate multiple registration? I refer not just to the evidence of the returning officer, but to points in the report to which the hon. Member for Belfast, East put his name.

Photo of Peter Robinson Peter Robinson DUP, Belfast East

The argument was never that someone could not validly register more than once; it was that they could not vote more than once. They could not vote more than once in parliamentary assembly, local government or European elections. I draw on the passage quoted by the hon. Gentleman to aid the argument that I have advanced: the chief electoral officer says that even though it is permissible to register at more than one address,

``it is an offence to vote more than once...in more than one electoral area at such a local election.''

Photo of Mr Harry Barnes Mr Harry Barnes Labour, North East Derbyshire 5:15 pm, 18th October 2001

The report states:

``in more than one constituency at a general election or more than once in the same electoral area at a local government election or in more than one electoral area at such a local election.''

That means that it is not legitimate to vote more than once in the same local government elections. However, local government elections in different areas of Northern Ireland are not ruled out as elections where it is possible to vote more than once.

I will explain the situation in the United Kingdom. I am entitled to be registered in North-East Derbyshire, where I live, and in Lambeth, London, where I have accommodation so that I can attend Parliament. I have not registered at both places, and a dispute exists over whether I am obliged to do so. I believe that single registration should be the general principle to which we all adhere. I can legitimately vote in North-East Derbyshire district council elections and in local government elections in London, even when they are held on the same day. That situation exists across Northern Ireland. However, if I had two registrations in North-East Derbyshire because I had two homes there, I would be allowed to vote only once. That is the case in Britain, including Northern Ireland, and it is known to the chief electoral officer in Northern Ireland.

The situation was clearly understood by the Select Committee. Its report stated on page xi, paragraph 24:

``The doubt over the accuracy of the Register raises the question whether multiple registration should continue as a right.''

That right is being challenged by the hon. Member for Belfast, East. It should have been understood by everybody who put their name to the report that multiple registration not only took place in Northern Ireland, but was allowed to operate in certain circumstances. The argument against multiple registration was that

``it is desirable to make the electoral process within the United Kingdom as uniform as possible - the right to register in more than one place exists throughout the country.''

That is the position that I adhere to, and that was adhered to by the Select Committee, but I believe that multiple registration should not take place and is problematic.

I want to take action on a United Kingdom basis, not only in Northern Ireland. A procedure could be included in electoral law to cover the matter. A bad piece of legislation, the Local Government Finance Act 1988, introduced the poll tax. Under that, a person could register to pay his main poll tax payment for his sole or main place of residence. If that could be done for electoral law generally, it would be possible to allow only one electoral registration for the sole or main place of residence. The rolling register is allowed to roll quicker in England than in Northern Ireland, owing to extra problems there. It is possible for people to move from one area to another and back again

The question of students was raised. Students can be registered in one area and at the same time be registered in another. However, that is a much wider consideration than can be dealt with in terms of multiple registration. In any case, the chief electoral officer said that it was not a major problem in terms of the fraudulent use of votes in Northern Ireland. It is much more to do with another item that we are due to discuss, which relates to the issuing of the marked register.

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

The debates on the two issues of multiple registration and multiple voting have become unduly complex. I remember expending quite a bit of energy in my younger days on the streets of Northern Ireland trying to achieve one man, one vote, which would now of course be one person, one vote, as time moves on. There has been much reference to and quotation of chief electoral officers and Select Committees. All of those pronouncements are simply expressions of opinion, unless those consulted were asked for a definitive legal interpretation. However, let me assure the Committee that on many occasions when I asked for definitive legal interpretations of the law on voting and registration, I did not get a correct answer from the then chief electoral officer. Consequently, I have no great confidence that the chief electoral office is the origin of all authority. In fact, at the last election, I was given grossly wrong information by the chief electoral officer. I had to challenge him, and he had to admit that he was wrong, so I have no problem with contradicting what has been said in the past by anybody.

I also have no problem with adapting my attitudes to new facts and new times, which is what I think the Committee is about. The basic principle—it is common currency in Northern Ireland at the moment—is equality of esteem, which means that every person is equal before the law, whether it is the criminal law or the law on voting or registration. That leads on to the principle that must always be pursued—one person, one vote. Irrespective of a person's wealth, irrespective of where they reside or their station in life, we must treat all our citizens with the best equality that human endeavour can achieve. I have appended my name to amendment No. 9 to try to eradicate that element of multiple voting and penalise people quite severely for committing the illegal act of multiple voting. I have no problem with that whatsoever. I am quite prepared to support it.

Our debates show that multiple registration is a slightly more difficult issue, but on principle a person should register to vote only in one place. If an elector is qualified to register in more than one place, they should choose where they want to vote. As we have heard, and as I know from practice, there are circumstances where an elector can register for good and equal reasons in different electoral divisions, be they local government, parliamentary or European.

I pointed out some time ago—not in relation to this legislation or my amendment to it—that a person should have a space in which to indicate that they are registering at two different addresses, so that that is clearly brought to the attention of the electoral office. There should be a penalty for not providing that information. In addition, quite a simple administrative arrangement can be made, whereby a person who has dual registration must suggest before a given time of the election the address of registration that he or she wants to exercise, thereby negating his or her alternative option. It would be fairly simple and straightforward for the electoral office to administer that work. On that basic principle of parity of esteem and equality of citizenship—one person, one vote—I will support the amendment.

Photo of Andrew Turner Andrew Turner Conservative, Isle of Wight

I rise to support new clause 8, which was tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate, and amendment No. 9, which was tabled by the hon. Member for Belfast, East. However, I have some concerns about amendment No. 8. The first of them—whether it refers to one parliamentary constituency in Northern Ireland or in the United Kingdom—may be less important than the others, but it needs to be clarified.

I am sure that we all frequently grapple with the law on registration in our political lives, and it sometimes seems absurd to the layman. However, it is perfectly legal for someone to vote in two parliamentary by-elections held on the same day. As I understand matters, in Great Britain—certainly in England—it is possible for people to vote in two different local authorities in local government elections held on the same day. I am a little confused as to whether a local government area in Northern Ireland means a local authority or what we call a ward or county division.

It is clear that it is not possible in England for someone to vote twice in an election for one district, and amendment No. 9 would make that unlawful if not impossible in Northern Ireland. People can vote in elections for two different districts held on the same day, but cannot vote twice in an election for one district. Similarly, amendment No. 9 makes it unlawful for people to vote twice in a parliamentary general election, but not for them to vote in two parliamentary by-elections held on the same day.

It is tempting to head towards a ban on multiple registration altogether. It benefits some groups in the community unfairly, such as those fortunate enough to be able to afford a second home and to live in it as much as they live in the first. We are among those who benefit from that. It benefits students, who can register at home and at their place of study. It may be argued to disbenefit certain politicians in areas with high student populations or high numbers of holiday homes.

It is difficult, however, to say that multiple registration is wrong in Northern Ireland when it is permissible in Great Britain. The hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire suggested that it should be unlawful in Great Britain. That is another matter and requires another measure on another day. I support the Minister's view that we cannot have different qualifications for voting in different parts of the UK, which is why I find it hard to support amendment No. 8.

Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Liberal Democrat, Montgomeryshire

I apologise to the Committee, but I have to leave to do something else, so I shall not be here for any vote. Does the hon. Gentleman accept that we are discussing matters of significant principle, as the Minister effectively pointed out? Can he explain why he judges the extent of the punishment proposed in new clause 8 to be proportionate to the offence?

Photo of Andrew Turner Andrew Turner Conservative, Isle of Wight

I was not proposing to discuss that aspect of new clause 8, but it is an offence against electoral law, and such an offence has the potential to disturb the legitimate result of an election. In that regard, the punishment is proportionate.

I fail to understand why the Minister resists new clause 8 so strongly.

Photo of Andrew Turner Andrew Turner Conservative, Isle of Wight

In that case, perhaps we may assume that the Minister, having refused to say whether he intends to resist new clause 8—although that would have saved the Committee some time—is going to resist it either strongly or weakly. A weak resistance from him may be approaching, but I will put in my resistance first.

New clause 8 is a reasonable compromise. A ban on multiple registration would be unfair to electors in Northern Ireland as compared to their counterparts in the rest of the United Kingdom. In the rest of the United Kingdom, it is easy to register twice and to cast one's vote twice, if one wishes to do so.

In the recent general election, which was held on the same day as county council elections on the Isle of Wight and in counties such as Surrey, a number of people were registered to vote in both those locations. One of those people was my right hon. Friend the Member for South-West Surrey (Virginia Bottomley), although I am not claiming that what I am about to describe happened to her personally. Ballot papers could clearly be issued to people in both those locations on the same day. Believe it or not, it is possible to travel from the Isle of Wight to Surrey within the period during which the polling stations are open and so to claim one's vote in the county council elections in both places and to exercise both those votes legitimately. If one were physically present at a polling station on the Isle of Wight, one could say, ``I want a ballot paper because I want to vote for—or against—Andrew Turner.'' If one were physically present at a polling station in Surrey, one could say, ``I want a ballot paper for the county council elections, but I do not want you to issue me with one for the general election because I am not entitled to use it.''

As for the postal vote, I know that the returning officer on the Isle of Wight required only one application for postal votes for all the elections that were held on that day—I am not sure whether that was the case in Surrey. One might receive one's ballot papers in Surrey, one might vote in the county council election and the general election and, additionally, one might receive through the post two ballot papers, one for the county council election and one for the general election on the Isle of Wight. Therefore, it was not possible to tell simply by checking the ballot papers that were issued whether people were likely to have voted twice. If postal ballot papers were issued, one would have to check whether those papers were returned before one could find out whether an individual had voted twice.

The result was that more general election ballot papers were not returned in the elections in certain wards on the Isle of Wight than county election ballot papers. I can assume only that that was because many electors were registered twice.

That is unfortunate on the Isle of Wight and unfortunate in Surrey, but it is not likely to change the result of the elections because there is not the level of organised deceit and malpractice that we know exists in Northern Ireland. [Interruption] The Minister mentions another political party, but I will not take him up on that as the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire is no longer present. There is organised deceit and corruption in elections in Northern Ireland, which I am pleased to say is not the case in Surrey or on the Isle of Wight. That is why the new clause proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate would achieve a reasonable compromise between the position in Northern Ireland and the position in the rest of the United Kingdom.

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

As I made clear in my intervention on the hon. Member for Reigate, the purpose of the Bill is to protect the legitimate rights of voters in Northern Ireland from abuse. The purpose of preventing abuse in elections is to ensure that the result is a true reflection of the will of the voters who exercised their legitimate right. It was never my intention to remove any rights from voters in Northern Ireland. It is with great reluctance that we require legitimate voters there to produce identification or to satisfy other conditions in order to exercise those legitimate rights. I have no intention of allowing the Bill to become a vehicle to remove rights from the voters of Northern Ireland that are enjoyed by voters in the rest of the United Kingdom.

That is my position on multiple registration and the law as it presently stands. If the Committee wishes, I am prepared to say what the law is and how it came to be like that, but I am not sure that that would help. The hon. Member for Belfast, East has broadly summarised, if not entirely accurately, the history of the law. The point of principle is whether, in protecting people's rights, we should take other rights from them. My view is that we should not.

Photo of Peter Robinson Peter Robinson DUP, Belfast East

The Minister is attempting a fine balance between the definition of a person's right to vote and the conditions that will be applied to them being allowed to vote. I am not sure which side of that argument the Minister might take on the right of people to vote by post, which is much more flexible and expensive in Great Britain than in Northern Ireland.

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

For reasons that the Committee has debated at length, and because of the problems in Northern Ireland, which have been explained by several hon. Members, including the hon. Gentleman, those restrictions have been put in place. Nevertheless, whatever people may have to do in order to exercise their vote, they still own the vote. I see a clear distinction between taking the right to vote away from people who presently enjoy it and putting in proportionate measures and checks and balances to ensure that the right to vote is not defeated by abuse or fraud. If the hon. Member for Belfast, East does not see that distinction, I cannot help him any further. I have the clear impression that almost all the other members of the Committee grasp the distinction. If not, we can debate it further.

Photo of Peter Robinson Peter Robinson DUP, Belfast East

I do not think that the Minister has grasped the point that I am making. People in Great Britain have the right to vote by post under certain circumstances, but people in Northern Ireland do not have the right to vote in the same circumstances. A distinction already exists on the right to vote—and that example is off the top of my head. Will the Minister reconsider his remarks about taking away the vote from those who already enjoy it? The reality is that they are not enjoying it in Northern Ireland. People cannot be lose something that they are presently not aware of and have not exercised.

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

I have listened for long enough to the hon. Gentleman, in private conversation and in debate in the House, speaking for everybody in Northern Ireland. I respect and accept that he genuinely believes that nobody knew that that was the position. However, I do not think that he can, with confidence, speak for everybody in saying so. I do not have the information about whether there is multiple registration in Northern Ireland and what people might have done. I do not have it because we do not have the technology to reveal it, although we are reaching a stage when we might have it shortly. However, I do not accept the bland assertion that nobody in Northern Ireland knew.

It does not really help us to debate whether the evidence of the previous electoral officer in his memorandum to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee meant one thing or another. There are two interpretations: it could mean that which the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire thinks it means, or it could mean what other people were urging upon him. That just adds to the confusion.

I cannot comment on what the present chief electoral officer or his staff might have said to the hon. Members for Belfast, East and for South Down, but I can tell the Committee unequivocally that the chief electoral officer understands the law on multiple registration of voting in local government elections in Northern Ireland. My position is that these amendments and new clauses would disadvantage the voters in Northern Ireland compared with those in the rest of the UK by removing their right to be registered at more than one address and by making it an offence to vote in more than one local government area. I acknowledge the potential for legitimate multiple registrations to translate into illegitimate votes. However, I do not regard that potential as a reason for singling out Northern Ireland and removing people's right to register more than once there, or for removing their right to vote more than once in local government elections.

Furthermore, part of the purpose of the Bill is to tackle the problem directly. It introduces requirements for additional information to be provided by those seeking registration. With the help of computer software, which the chief electoral officer is introducing into his office, it will be possible to use that information to identify people seeking to be registered in more than one place. It therefore seems unnecessary to require people to state that information on registration. The chief electoral officer will be able to check whether those who seek to be registered at more than one address are genuinely registered there anyway. Perhaps it would be appropriate now to deal with new clause 8.

That was the position that I held. I have listened to the debate. I am not entirely persuaded that we need to require people to answer the question posed in new clause 8 at the point of canvass. However, I am persuaded that the issue is worth considering further. I am advised that it does not require primary legislation and that it can be done through regulations. The debate between the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire and the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) covered the matter of an appropriate penalty. My concern is that if we amended the form to include a question about having previously registered or being registered at more than one address, there would have to be a sanction to ensure that people answered it and did not just ignore it. Some consideration should be given to the proportionality of the penalty for failure to answer that question properly.

I am coming to the view that there might be some value in including in a canvass return a question such as: ``Have you registered at another address or do you intend to register at another address?'' Since we shall be using individual canvass forms rather than household forms, that might have additional value. If the hon. Member for Reigate is prepared to withdraw his amendment, I shall undertake to consider that possibility between now and Report stage. I shall consult with the parties in Northern Ireland, and with the chief electoral officer, and I shall come back with a clear position on Report. I am more persuaded now than I was before I listened to the debate.

I shall read an explanation of amendment No. 9. Perhaps hon. Members need to have it in front of them to understand the position. Paragraph 12A of schedule 9 of the Electoral Law Act (Northern Ireland) 1962—an Act of the Northern Ireland Parliament—was inserted by the Local Elections (Northern Ireland) (Amendment) Order 1987 order. It states that it is an offence to vote as an elector more than once in the same district electoral area or in more than one district electoral area in the same district in an ordinary election. That helps me to understand the evidence of the previous chief electoral officer, but it might not help those who are listening to me.

Accordingly, I am advised that, apart from 13F(1)(a), the changes proposed in amendment No. 9 are already the law. [Interruption.] May I try to summarise my position without going through a rehearsal of the law? I resist all the amendments, but, in particular, those that seek to outlaw multiple voting in local government elections where it is at present lawful as a matter of principle. I do not accede to the argument that the voters of Northern Ireland should have fewer rights than those in the rest of the United Kingdom because there is a difficulty with fraud.

I turn now to the proposal that further information be obtained so that the chief electoral officer can check whether people are registered at more than one address and whether they have obeyed the law in parliamentary and local government elections. I now have an open, more positive mind than I did before the debate as regards extending the questions on the canvas form to include those such as appear in new clause 8. I give the Committee an undertaking to discuss the issue with my officials and the chief electoral officer and to consult the parties in Northern Ireland, the official Opposition and the Liberal Democrats, if that is appropriate, so that we have a clear position on Report.

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

It would be extremely churlish of me to do anything other than welcome the Minister's remarks about new clause 8, and I will not press it to a vote, in the light of the undertakings that he has given.

I have only one further argument in favour of his considering new clause 8 before we return to it on Report; it relates to the searches of the register to which he alluded. The Committee has decided not to include national insurance numbers on the registration form. The Minister said that it would be fairly straightforward to check the register to see whether there had been multiple registrations. However, people are likely—particularly if they want illegally to take advantage of multiple voting by effecting multiple registration—to register under their Irish and English names at different addresses. Even if the addresses are correct and they have a claim to them, the only factor in common will be the date of birth. Obviously, the signature will not be the same, because the name will be different. The chief electoral officer might well have insufficient data to carry out a computer search to check one registration against another.

If national insurance numbers were included, that problem would be dealt with, unless the numbers were fraudulent. As national insurance numbers are not included, that is another reason to consider new clause 8 positively. I am grateful for the Minister's undertakings.

Photo of Andrew Turner Andrew Turner Conservative, Isle of Wight

Does my hon. Friend agree that, although the chief electoral officer for Northern Ireland has no power to investigate registers in the rest of the United Kingdom, his new clause would enable that information to be provided as well?

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

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that point. I am certain that the Minister and his officials will have noted that, and will bear it in mind when they come to consider the new clause in detail and introduce any Government new clause on Report, which I hope the Opposition will be able to support.

I return to multiple voting and amendment No. 9. The Minister's point about withdrawing rights is fairly marginal, but I accept that he is making a principled objection. On the basis of that, and being convinced of the merits of his arguments, I shall not support the amendments tabled by the hon. Members for Belfast, East and for South Down. However, I point out that the voting rights that the Minister said those would take away were voting rights that the chief electoral officer in 1997, after 17 years in post, did not believe that the people of Northern Ireland enjoyed. On my reading of the evidence given to the Select Committee, indeed they did not. The Minister's point was marginal, but if we get the register right, and have multiple registration reflected and known, as on the basis suggested in new clause 8, his points about amendments Nos. 8 and 9 would seem more reasonable.

Photo of Peter Robinson Peter Robinson DUP, Belfast East

I leave the historical context to one side, by indicating that I can, to some extent, accept the Minister's judgment that it is possible to interpret the memorandum from the former chief electoral officer in more than one way. However, that is only if one makes the assumption, as did the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire, that he really intended to add the words ``in the same district'' to the end of the paragraph.

Photo of Mr Harry Barnes Mr Harry Barnes Labour, North East Derbyshire

I think that the Select Committee interpreted that in the way that I said, because that influenced its recommendations, which the hon. Member for Belfast, East was involved in.

Photo of Peter Robinson Peter Robinson DUP, Belfast East

I do not agree. To some extent, the hon. Gentleman seems to be confusing my argument about multiple voting with the issue of multiple registration. No restraint was applied to people on multiple registration. I am not making a case about that, but about multiple voting. I was a little surprised that the Minister indicated that he was unsure about what the present chief electoral officer might think about the law on that. I understood that the chief electoral officer had written to the Minister or to his officials to seek clarification about the Bill.

Photo of Peter Robinson Peter Robinson DUP, Belfast East

I shall give way to the Minister in a moment, but I want to put my point in context. When I raised the issue with the chief electoral officer to see if he could give me the benefit of his wisdom, I was told that he was seeking advice from the Minister's Department.

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

I want to clarify what I said. I said that at present the chief electoral officer knows what the law is. I chose not to comment on any conversations that might have taken place between the hon. Member for Belfast, East and the chief electoral officer or anyone else. That is my position and I do not want it to be misinterpreted.

Photo of Peter Robinson Peter Robinson DUP, Belfast East

It may be best to leave the historical position behind. It is clear from what is now on the record that it was not a matter of common knowledge in the public houses and the women's institutes in Northern Ireland that people had a right to vote more than once. I speak for those in both the women's institutes and the public houses on that issue. I have the benefit of representing people who use both those facilities.

On multiple registration, I do not believe that with rolling registration it is essential to have multiple registration if people can vote on only one occasion at an election. I listened to the Labour party's new principle that people with plenty of money and, therefore, plenty of houses should have the advantage of voting on more than one occasion. We have noted that new socialist principle, but I do not agree with it. I contend that it is proper for people to have only one vote in each election irrespective of their bank balances or assets. However, the hon. Member for South Down is an accountant and my best subject at college was mathematics. We can both work out what the impact would be if we pressed the amendment to a Division. We may rally our troops on a further occasion, but I have been given some dignity in withdrawing the amendment with the Minister's semi-assurance on new clause 8. That helps me to the extent that I honestly believe that the matter will come under pressure in the months and years ahead. Those who want to cast more votes than they are legally entitled to will use the legislation as a method for doing so. If new clause 8 were accepted, there would be a mechanism for tracking and monitoring what is happening. Perhaps the Minister would then think less unfavourably of those who urged him to take action on this occasion and he, or his successor if he has moved on to greater and better things, might consider an amendment at that stage.

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 6, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Sir David Amess Sir David Amess Conservative, Southend West

Mr. Öpik was, unfortunately, unable to stay for the remainder of our proceedings, so I shall not call amendment No. 44.

Clause 7 ordered to stand part of the Bill.