New Clause 2 - Activities of polling agents

Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 5:30 pm on 18th October 2001.

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`(1) Schedule 1 to the Representation of the People Act 1983 (parliamentary elections rules) is amended as follows.(2)

(2) In rule 35 (questions to be put to voters), in paragraph (4), at the end, there is added ``; and no candidate's polling agent present in the polling station shall be provided with, gather or disseminate any information as to which elector or electors have or have not voted during the hours of polling''.'.

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Peter Robinson Peter Robinson DUP, Belfast East

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

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

With this it will be convenient to take the following: New clause 3—Procedure on close of poll—

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

(2) In rule 43 (procedure on close of poll), after paragraph (2), there is inserted—

``(2A) The marked copies of the register of electors and of the list of proxies shall be returned to the Chief Electoral Officer for Northern Ireland and shall not be made available to any member of the public.''.'.

New clause 7—General availability of list of persons who have voted—

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

(2) After rule 37 there is inserted—

``37A. During the hours of polling the presiding officer shall maintain a list of those persons on the register who have voted and shall make the list available from time to time on request to a relevant candidate, election agent, or polling agent.''.'.

Photo of Peter Robinson Peter Robinson DUP, Belfast East 6:00 pm, 18th October 2001

New clause 2 refers to the gathering of information and the interaction between political representatives in a polling station and the electoral officer's staff in that polling station. I should first point out that I have no emotional capital tied up in the precise wording of the new clause, and I am certain that the Minister could provide us with something much more appropriate. I am simply arguing for the general principle involved. It is well known that those with the best-organised machines in any election have a distinct advantage. Nowhere is that more clearly seen than in a large, military-style machine that is capable of taking information from a polling station and using it to bring in voters who have not voted.

It is already an offence for anyone inside a polling station to provide those outside with information about who has, or has not, voted. However, in real life that happens, and in some constituencies it happens on a massive scale—to such an extent, in fact, that it is evident to those who work there that polling station information is being used systematically to get those who had not previously voted to fill in the gaps. I know that the Minister is earnest about this issue, and there is a general desire, and entitlement, for people to be able to enter a polling station on behalf of candidates and observe what is taking place.

It is not the intention of the new clause to take away such a right. I want political parties to retain the ability to observe what happens in a polling station. I want to draw the line, however, by stopping people marking down who has voted and who has not, and disseminating that information. If it were an offence to mark a register with such information, the task of the cheats would become very difficult indeed. In the light of mobile telephones and text messaging—and, indeed, the handing out of a straightforward piece of paper containing the numbers of those who have and have not voted—it is fairly easy for a major campaign team to get to work. That gives them an advantage over other political parties, and it takes away people's right not to vote at all or to have some privacy and confidentiality, at least, about whether they have voted.

I urge the Minister to look at this issue, which can have a major effect on the outcome of an election. It would not be difficult for him to incorporate such a measure into legislation, or for presiding officers to implement it. It is much harder to police the present system than it would be to implement a regulation requiring presiding officers to stop anyone taking down such information from the polling station electoral register. At the moment, such information can be recorded, and it is up to the presiding officer to check whether it is taken out of the polling station.

The Minister has again provided some help, in the form of the Northern Ireland Office survey, which points out that the dissemination of polling station information to those outside was causing considerable problems for presiding officers. Given that the report and the survey reveal a problem, I hope that the Minister—even if he does not accept the precise wording of the new clause—will accept that it should be dealt with so that information cannot be taken down and disseminated.

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

I support the new clause, to which I originally contributed slightly different wording. My version has been amalgamated as though it were exactly the same as the new clause, which confuses me because my version read:

``The marked copies of the register of electors and of the list of proxies who have voted''.

The three words ``who have voted'' are not included in the new clause, but that does not detract from its intentions.

The hon. Member for Belfast, East has described how election results can be changed or the fortunes of candidates altered by information leaving the polling station prior to the close of the poll, which has been almost ``traditional'' in Northern Ireland. That method has recently been stigmatised as a way in which certain results can be achieved, but that was always the case. However, it has become endemic and more organised for reasons that we have rehearsed on many occasions in Committee. The release of information from the polling station, which the new clause tries to prevent, is currently illegal. I was attempting to address an entirely different situation whereby the presiding officers' marked registers, which show who has or has not voted. They are returned to the electoral officer and are available to the public subsequent to the election, which is an entirely different set of circumstances.

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

If you say so.

Certain groups of people are getting hold of the marked register after the election. They prepare for the next election by heavy canvassing of those who have not voted. That enables such people to use a psychological threat whereby no fewer than three or four people attend a voter's door saying, ``We note from the official records that you did not vote last time. We will know whether you vote this time. We will also know how you vote, and we will be back to visit you.''. That was common practice in my constituency during the previous Westminster and local government elections. That is enormous psychological pressure because if such people know whether an elector voted, then the supposition that they know how they voted can easily be inferred and believed. For that reason, in addition to the leakage of information from the polling station on the day of the poll, the f act that the official marked register of the vote at each polling station is available through the electoral office after the election is not in the interests of democracy.

As the hon. Member for Belfast, East said, however much political parties want all people to vote—especially for us, but that is another story—whether to do so is a democratic decision. I had a different intention that has happened to coincide with the wording of new clause 3. Again, as the hon. Member for Belfast, East said, if the Minister took on board the problem and came back with more accurate wording, I would be happy to consider it. Otherwise, the leakage of sensitive information, which can be done both officially and unofficially, worries me. Otherwise, the leakage of sensitive information, which can be done both officially and unofficially, worries me.

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

On a point of order, Mr. Amess. At some point I have to move new clause 6. When will that be appropriate?

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

After we have concluded this debate.

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

Thank you for your guidance, Mr. Amess. Several of us are new to our positions, and I apologise for not being clear about the precise procedure.

I have considerable sympathy with the arguments of the hon. Members for Belfast, East and for South Down. However, as will be evident from new clause 7, I have come to a different conclusion about how the issue should be addressed, which I shall try to explain. The hon. Member for South Down discussed the use of the marked register and whether it should be released to the political parties for use in peacetime to identify who had not voted. He gave a graphic account of the intimidation or pressure to which people who traditionally have not been terribly interested in voting or the electoral process can be subjected.

To support the hon. Gentleman's point, one has only to look at what happened in West Tyrone, which Sinn Fein gained from the Ulster Unionist party at the last general election and where 2,012 proxy votes were granted. I wonder why there was that extraordinarily high number of proxy votes in one constituency—getting on for 10 times as many as most other constituencies and twice as many as any of the rest. Was it a product of Sinn Fein in this instance being able to use the marked register to identify people who did not vote and to say to them, ``If you can't be bothered to go to the polling station, we'll arrange for someone to do it for you''? That would of course be improper. The number of proxy votes in that constituency is a rather startling statistic.

I do not demur from the general position taken by the hon. Members who tabled new clauses 2 and 3—namely, that there is a problem. However, the difficulty is that one runs into the principle that, unless it cannot be avoided, things should not be done differently in Northern Ireland from how they are done in Great Britain. What will be done with the marked registers? What will be the activity at the polling station? I came to the conclusion that we should try to put all the political parties in Northern Ireland on as even a footing as possible. The number of thank you letters that we have to write after a general election makes me only too aware of the number of people—it can be hundreds—who are involved in telling at all the polling stations in a constituency. If one has a full polling day organisation, hundreds of one's supporters will be involved in getting out the vote. Quite a lot of that involves the exercise of telling at the polling stations to get the information on who has voted to pass back so as to identify supporters who have not voted and go and knock them up.

What concerns me about politics in Northern Ireland is that one party is better financed and better organised than all the rest. We can speculate on the reasons for that, but the political process should be as even as possible. Ironically, I have come to the same conclusion as that expressed by Sinn Fein in its evidence to the Select Committee:

``In keeping with our view that the maximum freedom to vote should exist we also believe that relevant information from within the polling station should be made readily available to all political parties. In the course of the day party officials should be authorised to collate the names of those who have not cast their vote. This would facilitate party canvassers and tally clerks and ensure a greater participation by the electorate in the electoral process.''

If a political party is well organised and has many people to put together a professional organisation, it can get its tellers outside the polling stations and ensure that the information is received from the polling station simply by having sufficient people on the ground to identify who has voted. However, another political party may not enjoy the same funding and professionalism. If the information continues to be available from the polling station—which I suspect is the Minister's position and is the principle to discuss, although the amendment is probing in order to open up debate—let us try to put the people competing in the election in as even a position as possible. There is the subterfuge of people listening to poll clerks or the presiding officer reading out voters' numbers as they enter the polling station and ticking lists inside the polling station. They are entitled to do that, but it can only be done if there is the organisation to have polling agents inside or tellers outside to take the volunteered information. If it were automatic that a representative of the candidate could collect the information from the polling station during the day, as new clause 7 would allow, the information would be freely available to all parties on the same basis because it would be collected and collated by the presiding officer and the poll clerks.

The other advantage is that there would be no need for tellers or polling agents to be based permanently inside or outside the polling station. It is clear from the research commissioned by the Northern Ireland Office from Research and Evaluation Services that a number of electors felt a degree of intimidation because of the party agents and tellers who were outside the polling stations. If we are to continue to allow marked registers to be given to parties and agents after the election—that is the key question—so that an organised party may take advantage of them, we should put the political parties on as even a footing as possible during the polling day and make information readily available in a form that can be used for each of the parties to get their votes out. It would be interesting to carry that out as a trial in Northern Ireland.

There are particular circumstances in Northern Ireland because there is a plethora of political parties. I do not know how many parties are represented in the Assembly because I have not counted them.

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

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman.

If the 10 parties contest an election with 20 tellers—two each—outside a polling station and a further 10 agents inside the polling station, the situation is one of total chaos. Therefore, the proposal has an administrative benefit because it would take people away from the polling station.

The spirit of the amendment is probing, and to allow discussion. If we cannot go down the principled route of removing the people's right to see the marked registers after the election, and limiting that in the manner proposed by the hon. Members for South Down and for Belfast, East—I accept that there is an issue to be addressed—perhaps the other way of doing it is, ironically, to do what I do: make the information more readily available on polling day so that the parties can compete in the election more evenly.

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

We should continue to prohibit the dissemination of information out of the polling station. For those reasons—I may cover this in more detail—I do not favour new clause 7 in any guise.

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

I understand that the Minister wants to keep the prohibition, but it does not work: the information is going out of the polling stations, in particular, to parties that are sufficiently well-funded and organised to get it out.

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

I am at one with the hon. Members for Belfast, East and for South Down to the extent that I believe that it is better to interdict such behaviour inside the polling station, where there is some prospect of it being policed—it may be imperfectly policed at certain polling stations; I shall come to that in a moment—rather than giving information to the parties. If parties behave on individual doorsteps on polling day in the way that the hon. Member for South Down claims, I suspect that there is no prospect of policing such behaviour. However, there is a prospect of our protecting that information within the polling station.

The hon. Member for Belfast, East and I disagree on whether we need to outlaw the provision of information to polling agents by polling clerks and providing officers. I do not think that there is any disagreement between the position adopted by me as a Minister and others on whether party representatives—polling agents, agents or candidates—should be entitled to go inside polling stations to observe how the poll is conducted. That seems a necessary part of democracy. The new clause contributes nothing new to eradicating the mischief—the transmission of information out of the polling station. It is more effective to focus the efforts of the chief electoral officer and his staff on ensuring, through the training of presiding officers and other measures, the enforcement of the existing ban.

I acknowledge the point of the hon. Member for Belfast, East that he is not thirled to the wording of the amendment. I am sure that he realises that prohibiting the provision of information to polling agents from polling clerks or presiding officers is unnecessary. From the available evidence, in the research or elsewhere, the problem does not seem to lie with election staff passing information to polling agents. The information is being obtained by polling agents recording information that is legitimately available as part of the electoral process. The passing of information from the clerk to the presiding officer or the assistant is part of the process of ensuring an open and democratic procedure. We cannot interdict that.

If we cannot stop information being passed in that way because it is necessary to ensure openness, and we cannot stop—as I believe we cannot—people who represent the parties from being in the polling stations, we need to concentrate our efforts on ensuring that they do not breach the law by passing that information out of the polling station. Although this might be a little out of order, new clause 7 is highly inadvisable against that objective, unless we get rid of the prohibition altogether, which I am not persuaded to do. New clause 7 would only encourage the flouting of the prohibition, but I recognise that the new clause was intended to be probing.

As the hon. Member for Reigate pointed out, new clause 3 would mean that Northern Ireland procedure would run contrary to the position of the rest of the United Kingdom. I have already expressed how reluctant I am to do that, although I am persuaded to in certain circumstances. I am not convinced that political parties should be denied the information of the mapped register at the end of the poll. It is information that I, and I suspect other hon. Members, have used and, although my use of it in the west of Scotland does not translate to it having to be used in Northern Ireland, I have not been persuaded that there should be regional differences. I use it to identify people who said during canvassing that they will vote for me or for my party and to find out whether they have voted and whether there were any problems. In doing that, I use it in the same way as many other hon. Members have done, do and would like to continue to do. It is entirely legitimate.

The provision of the marked register, which is the true record of the number of people who voted, is necessary also so that parties can, if they wish to, assure themselves that the poll was conducted in a proper manner. To remove that right would be draconian. However, it is the Government's obligation that, as far as possible, it interdicts the transfer of the information available in the polling station to outside to be used for the purposes mentioned by the hon. Member for South Down (Mr. McGrady) or for other purposes. I can tell that I have not persuaded the hon. Member for Belfast, East, but for the reasons I have mentioned I hope that the new clauses will be withdrawn.

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

I am unhappy about the general availability of marked registers. It is not healthy for political parties or Members of Parliament to have access to marked registers and know whether constituents they deal with voted or not. Although the Minister has mentioned arguments in favour of the marked register being available, it is a problem. There is also a difficulty with new clause 3 because it would mean that a marked register would not be made available in Northern Ireland, despite being available in Great Britain.

There are special reasons for arguing that the marked register should not be supplied in Northern Ireland, and my hon. Friend the Member for South Down mentioned cases of intimidation. The Select Committee's view, which unlike the laws of Medes and Persians can be moved away from by its members, was that

``local knowledge and use of the marked-up Registers for previous elections . . . show the names of those who did not vote. The votes of such people can easily be stolen without trace.''

There is difficulty in getting evidence of what takes place in Northern Ireland elections, but I have the impression that marked registers are widely used to discover who seldom or never votes. That is when personation can take place. On the other hand, the Bill will begin to tackle that problem of fraudulent vote because a photo identity card will be required.

The Select Committee did not go as far as recommending the non-availability of marked registers, but it asked the chief electoral officer to keep a close eye on the matter for the next five years and to report back on any problems. Northern Ireland has the extra problem of needing marked registers in certain circumstances because it is more likely that an electoral petition will emerge from Northern Ireland when the parties examine the details and find out that numbers of people have voted who are not entitled to. However, if the Bill is successful, it will remove that need. There are arguments for and against marked registers, and my disposition is to be unhappy about their provision generally throughout Great Britain, but I do not think that there are sufficient problems, given the new legislation, that require that they be removed from Northern Ireland.

I recommend the Home Office to consider seriously whether marked registers assist the operation of the democratic process. Certainly, our constituents would be aghast if they knew that marked registers were available. They would find it an intrusion into their civil liberties if the political parties could know, precisely and officially, who had voted and who had not. If people thought that that was the case, the view about intimidation that was referred to by the hon. Member for South Down would be held more widely, because they would think that if it were possible to know which people had voted it would also be possible to know whom those people has voted for. That misperception among people is a danger that should concern us.

Photo of Peter Robinson Peter Robinson DUP, Belfast East 6:30 pm, 18th October 2001

Had I been wording new clause 7 today, I might, having listened to the Minister, have framed it differently. His point about information being available to the signed-in and valid representatives of political parties in a polling station is sound. For example, a polling agent might ask the presiding officer whether a person had said that they were Joe McDonald—or whatever the name might be—to determine whether personation had taken place. I can see circumstances in which it would be appropriate for them to have that information. I also recognise, as the Minister commented, that it is important that such information should not be disseminated beyond the polling station.

If I were drawing up a new clause today, I would concentrate on the recording of that information. I have to ask the Committee, as I ask myself, what is the legitimate use of such information? If a mischief is being caused by it, we should make it an offence if no legitimate benefit can be derived from it. I cannot see that people within a polling station recording in their own register who has or who has not voted has any beneficial effect for the electoral process, nor is there any legitimate reason why they should have that information. Certainly there is no legitimate reason if marked registers are available to them after the election. If a representative from the Labour party with a red rosette knocked on my door and said, ``Mr. Robinson, you have not voted yet'' I may act differently from the way I would act if a couple of burly Sinn Feiners came to my door and informed me that they had knowledge that I had not been to the polls yet. The circumstances change the position.

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

Unfortunately, it could not be a member of the Labour party in Northern Ireland as the rules of the Labour party do not allow it. It is the only place in the world where a person could not be a member of the Labour party, which some of us think should change.

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

Even in Afghanistan I believe it would be possible to register people in the party.

Photo of Peter Robinson Peter Robinson DUP, Belfast East

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point about the position in Northern Ireland, but I am multiple registered in a constituency in London. That was in the past few weeks. It is a seat held by a Labour Member, so it is possible for that to occur. I will make sure that I vote at least once in the next council election here and in Northern Ireland.

The issue is clear. The only benefit is for the purposes of carrying out an activity that the Committee would not consider legitimate. The Minister could therefore have gone a little further in agreeing that not only the dissemination, but the recording of that information, should be made an offence. However, even if I won a vote, which is an unlikely experience in this Committee, I recognise that in its existing terms the new clause would put inappropriate wording into the legislation. I will not therefore push it, but I may consider at a later stage putting it in the form that the Minister suggests.

I was remiss in not commenting on the second new clause in my name, which relates to marked registers, but thankfully the hon. Member for South Down helped me out. Here again, I must ask whether mischief is being caused by the publication of a marked register. What are the corresponding benefits that would make it worth while not to make the changes suggested in the amendment? I have not received much enlightenment. The Minister said that it would prove that the poll was conducted in a proper manner. I just wonder. How many of those who purchased the marked register in Northern Ireland did so to determine whether the poll had been conducted in a proper manner? We are fooling ourselves if we believe that is what is happening.

The marked register is undoubtedly being used for the purposes outlined fairly graphically by the hon. Member for South Down and again emphasised by the hon. Member for Reigate. It shows the people who tend not to come out to vote. They are the easy targets, because other people can take their vote as there is not much chance of them having been out earlier and voted. There is also less chance of being caught. Some other changes would make it more difficult for people to personate. Nevertheless there is no valid reason why political parties need to have the marked register.

I heard the hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Shona McIsaac) tell the Minister from a sedentary position that she used the marked register. She did not say how she used it. I am sure that it was to encourage people who did not vote to do so the next time. I would not feel too intimidated if the hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Shona McIsaac) came to my door to urge me to vote if I had not done so before. However, I might feel more intimidated if a fellow in a hood came to my door and told me that I had not voted last time, but I might like to consider doing so on the next occasion.

Although there is a strong case for the measure, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.