Only a few days to go: We’re raising £25,000 to keep TheyWorkForYou running and make sure people across the UK can hold their elected representatives to account.Donate to our crowdfunder
[Relevant documents: Second Special Report, Session 1997-98, HC 781, Second Special Report, Session 1998-99, HC 484, and First Special Report, Session 2000-01, HC 148, from the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee; Administering Elections in Northern Ireland--Report of the Elections Review, October 1998, Cm 4081; and Combating Electoral Fraud in Northern Ireland, Cm 5080.]
Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.--[Mr. Kevin Hughes.]
It gives me great pleasure to open what may be the last debate in this Parliament on a Select Committee report.
The report of the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs on electoral malpractice was agreed in March 1998, a little more than three years ago. I thank the Liaison Committee for agreeing to put the report forward for debate. It was the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee's second report of the Parliament, and it may yet prove a highly topical subject for debate.
I am glad to respond to my hon. Friend's question. To be fair to everyone concerned--I shall allude to the Government's role later--there has been a continuous thread of intermittent activity on the issue throughout the Parliament. Our Committee saw no reason to ask the Liaison Committee for the opportunity to debate the report when we first produced it, but that thread has given grounds for today's debate on the report.
I am conscious that the last Thursday in March, when the sword of Damocles of an election being called may fall at any moment, is not necessarily the best time for a debate on any Select Committee report. Due to the uncertainty about the election date, our Committee was occupied until a late hour last night agreeing not one but two reports that we wanted to produce.
Like Wellington at Waterloo, I hope that I shall be joined by allies. Indeed, two members of the Committee have come into the Chamber while I have been speaking, so we are not totally absent from the ground. If we do not use all the time allotted to us, I want it to be clear that the report is nevertheless timeous and timely. The debate will not be prolonged because the issue is not especially complicated, but that is no reflection on the process of debating such reports.
The right hon. Gentleman said that the issue was not complicated, but it has taken a long time to come to fruition. The harsh reality is that the problem has caused tremendous concern. It did so in an earlier Parliament when we argued for measures to be brought in to tackle it. Do we now think the issue so complicated that it might be another two Parliaments before we have measures to protect against electoral fraud in Northern Ireland?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, which I think was directed more to others in the Chamber than to me, though he intervened on my speech quite properly. There will clearly be further opportunities in the debate to hear why people thought the issues complicated, despite the fact that some of us do not think that such complications exist.
Allegations of electoral fraud have been a feature of the political scene in Northern Ireland for many years. The apocryphal cry of "Vote early, vote often" is familiar in much parliamentary literature. To be parenthetical for a moment, I recall a Northern Ireland debate on the Floor of the House some years back, which was obviously going to go the full time. A former private secretary of mine was in the Official's Box, and I inquired how many Divisions were envisaged by the Government for the business, and he said that there would not be any Divisions in the early part of the evening, but there would be a lot at the end, to which I said that this must be one of those rare instances of "Vote late, vote often."
Parliament acted on reports that vote stealing in the Province was widespread by introducing, in the Representation of the People Act 1985, a requirement that voters in Northern Ireland should produce specified evidence of identity when asking for a ballot paper. Given that allegations were current about the impact of electoral fraud at the May 1997 general election, particularly in relation to the constituencies of Mid-Ulster and Belfast, West, the Committee made this inquiry a priority.
The Committee took oral evidence from the chief electoral officer for Northern Ireland, a former deputy electoral officer, the then Secretary of State and the Social Democratic and Labour Party. In addition, a range of interested parties submitted written evidence. The Committee was ably advised by Dr. Sidney Elliot of the department of politics at Queen's university, Belfast, and we were grateful to him for his assistance.
In his evidence to the Committee, the chief electoral officer identified four main ways of cheating: multiple entries in the register; personation, where someone pretends to be another person entitled to vote; absent voting abuse; and undue influence, which can take a variety of forms, ranging from outright physical intimidation to following postmen who are delivering postal votes and then calling at the houses to collect the postal vote forms or the votes themselves.
One difficulty in this area is gaining access to hard evidence. There have been many allegations of voting fraud, but much of the evidence is anecdotal and circumstantial. Even the chief electoral officer was unsure about the extent of the problem. However, we considered that there was sufficient evidence of organised voting theft to show that the problem of electoral malpractice in Northern Ireland is serious.
The Committee proposed a number of possible solutions. It considered the inclusion of every elector's signature in the register of voters and on any application for absent votes to be an essential component of checking. We envisaged that the signatures would be digitised and accessible in polling stations. We also sought an increase in the identifying details included on registration forms to counter the problem of illicit multiple registration and to make fraudulent applications harder. The Committee's report also proposed measures to improve the reliability of the register and called for the chief electoral officer to be given the technology that he needed to collate useful, collaborative information for checking applications to be put on the roll and for absent voting.
Central to our recommendations was a proposal to improve the standard of the proof of identity documents that give entitlement to a ballot paper. Some of those documents do not include a photograph, which assists their fraudulent use. National health service medical cards are particularly vulnerable to convincing forgery. Our preference was for a new, universally issued and electronically readable electoral card. Although a relatively expensive option, there was broad agreement that that was likely to be the most effective in preventing abuse.
On timing, we sought implementation of our recommendations at the earliest possible date, and in that respect I march with Rev. Martin Smyth. In evidence to the Committee, the then Secretary of State said:
"Before the European elections in 1999 we will be well on the way to looking at the changes we would like to make." The reality has been rather different. In July 1997, at about the time that we announced our inquiry, the then Secretary of State announced her own review of electoral practice in Northern Ireland. Initially meant to report by the end of November 1997, it had not reported by the time the Government replied to the report in May 1998, which arithmetic tells me is six months overdue. In view of that, the Secretary of State felt unable to give any commitment to change until she had considered the outcome of the review, completion of which was expected "shortly". She said that a more substantive reply to our report was likely to be given in mid-August.
In the event, the report of the election review was not delivered to Parliament until October 1998, almost a year after it had originally been expected to be ready. It was not until May 1999, following some prompting from the Committee, that the full response to our report was received. By then, we had reached the date by which the Secretary of State had originally expected to be considering next steps. It was supportive of many of the Committee's recommendations but, somewhat disappointingly, was vague about any time scale for implementing the measures that it envisaged.
When the Committee took evidence from the new Secretary of State on
"I do not have a slot to introduce such legislation at the present time." He described as "very unlikely indeed" the possibility of introducing smart cards before the next general election--and, consequently, the local elections due in May. He added:
"You are right to be nudging my elbow on this. You are right to focus me on it."
In November 2000, as part of the Committee's contribution to the Liaison Committee's "shifting the balance" exercise of reviewing outstanding recommendations, we asked the Northern Ireland Office--not unreasonably, I think--for an update on progress. That revealed that a working group had produced a draft Bill, which had been the subject of consultation with political parties and others, and from which several new ideas or modifications of existing ideas had emerged. The Northern Ireland Office was "considering the next steps".
I think that I speak on behalf of the whole Committee--we do not have a bad record of being unanimous--in saying that the Committee was singularly unimpressed. In its first special report, published in January 2001, it commented:
"Although we welcome the fact that the general thrust of the Department's current proposals accord with our general approach to the problem of reducing electoral fraud in Northern Ireland, we are very concerned about the length of time it is taking to secure any progress, even on such basic matters as replacing the most vulnerable identification documents which currently entitle a voter to a ballot paper. When we reported in March 1998, less than a year after the General Election, we had a reasonable expectation that rather more progress might have been made before the next General Election in tackling the serious problems of electoral malpractice than appears likely to be the case. Given the extensive consultation that took place following publication of the Government's review"-- that is the one that was issued in October 1998--
"we find the need for yet more rounds of consultation surprising, and the level of progress disappointing. Given that it is now unlikely that legislation can be introduced before the 2001-02 Parliamentary Session, at the earliest, we recommend the early publication of a draft bill on measures to counter electoral fraud, based on the proposals of the Working Group, modified to reflect the Government's consideration of the points raised in the most recent round of consultations."
Those strictures appear to have galvanised the Secretary of State into action. This month the Government presented to Parliament the White Paper "Combating Electoral Fraud in Northern Ireland". Besides a series of proposals for legislative change, it includes details of some welcome reforms initiated by the chief electoral officer that have immediate effect. One disappointment, though, is that the key to further progress remains the enactment of appropriate primary legislation. The White Paper merely states that that will emerge
"at the earliest possible opportunity". The particular ways of describing time--I have already quoted the previous Secretary of State's use of the word "shortly"--are familiar to all connoisseurs of ministerial language. I do not know how I would calibrate "at the earliest possible opportunity" against the other circumlocutions that are available, but at least the Government are saying that it will happen at the earliest possible opportunity.
However, that is no real advance on the position described by the Secretary of State on
I conclude by saying that when the report was agreed in 1998, I did not expect to be standing before the House on what might be the eve of the next general election, three years later, with Northern Ireland's electoral system still substantially as vulnerable to electoral fraud as it was in 1997. To be doing so is frankly disappointing. Therefore, I commend also to the House the Liaison Committee's systematic interest in ensuring that pressure is maintained on the Government, not simply to reply to Committee reports and then forget them, but to take due and proper account of their continuing relevance to policy development. Finally, to answer Mr. Taylor, we are having this debate today because of that interest, and I commend the report to the House.
It is a pleasure to follow Mr. Brooke, who is the Chairman of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee. I have been a member of that Committee throughout this Parliament entirely under his chairmanship. As in his role as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, when he found a form of words that began to lead to the peace process, and was therefore the first of the long line of facilitators who have assisted Northern Ireland in that development, he has also been a great facilitator of the work of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee. He has assisted us greatly by his full involvement in that Committee and by making decisions that might seem to be remarkable, given the range of Members who are on the Cttee. The Committee has seldom been divided. The right hon. Gentleman was always careful to see that we produced not only words, but ensured that Governments took on board what we were arguing about. When the Government did not, as on this occasion, they were prodded and pressed, not only by the right hon. Gentleman, but by the Committee collectively, or else he would seek our support for the position that he adopted.
The debate brings together the two subjects of Northern Ireland and electoral matters, both of which I am closely involved in, so it is a pleasure to take part in the debate. Although reference has been made to the work of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, the response of the Northern Ireland Office to measures that we put forward and the development of the White Paper, we are not the only ones who have been prodding and pressing on electoral matters. The Northern Ireland Forum produced a report, work on which was developed by a sub-committee. As part of that process, I gave evidence on matters such as the need for a rolling electoral register, which we have moved towards in the Representation of the People Act 2000.
I shall refer to an incident that I hope to show is relevant. It relates to elections in Yugoslavia. I went with others to monitor elections in the rump of Yugoslavia--the Milosevic Yugoslavia--until Christmas 1992. The group was chaired by the late Sir James Kilfedder, who was the first Chairman of the Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs that was set up in the previous Parliament. The other people involved in the work were Lady Olga Maitland, Simon Clarke of the Electoral Reform Society and another former Member, Michael Meadowcroft, who remains, I believe, with the party that calls itself the Liberal party, not the Liberal Democrat party.
We monitored the elections in Serbia, Kosovo and Vojvodina and discovered at polling stations and the count that a committee composed of the political parties in Yugoslavia was running things. With us were people from the former communist party, a fascist party and centre democratic parties, all of whom were working together monitoring what happened. Sir James Kilfedder was amazed by the extent to which it worked. Probably what was most wrong about the elections in Yugoslavia was the domination and control of the media and the influence over people's right to make up their minds. What we saw of the electoral procedures was astonishingly smooth, given that the people involved were drawn from such different groups.
Sir James could not believe that such a system would have a hope of working in Northern Ireland. He thought that allowing procedures at the count and polling station to be carried out by members of Sinn Fein, the Democratic Unionist party and the loyalist parties close to paramilitaries would be a recipe for disaster. Fortunately our tradition does not require that approach, but it was amazing how well it worked in Yugoslavia, despite the fact that the result was greatly distorted because of people's frame of mind, and state manipulation.
Northern Ireland is, apart from occasional odd incidents, the only area of the United Kingdom where serious organised electoral fraud and malpractice take place. If we consider ourselves to be a democratic Parliament, we should be seriously concerned about that and try to change the situation. We should see it as an important aspect of the development of the peace process. If parties are supposed to be committed to the use of the ballot box and democracy, that cannot mean a fiddled ballot box and manipulation aimed at fixing results. Everyone, including the Government, is firmly of that opinion and wants to press forward with such a policy--but perhaps it should be done more swiftly.
A difficulty is that as more is done to try to stop fraud, more difficulties are created for people exercising their rights of franchise. The checks and controls become significant, as the White Paper shows. A balance between the two sides of the matter is needed, and the mechanisms that make fraud possible should be eliminated.
One of the most serious forms of fraud in Northern Ireland is the appropriation of the votes of people who do not usually vote. Following checks to establish which people do not turn up to exercise their franchise, someone else, by personation or postal ballots, will act in their stead. That needs to be controlled. It raises the question for Northern Ireland--it was not raised in Britain--of whether the marked register should be available to political parties in Northern Ireland, as it will allow them to discover who has not voted. Information on who has not voted can be collated election after election as an insurance, and others can make use of it.
Acting on behalf of those who do not vote is probably more serious numerically than voting on behalf of people who have died whose names still appear on the register, which is thought to occur in Northern Ireland more often. In report HC 316, from the 1997-98 Session, the Select Committee recommended at paragraph 19 that the chief electoral officer should have the power to remove the names of those who have died from the register. The recommendation states:
"On notification by the Registrar of Births, Deaths and Marriages of a person's death, the Chief Electoral Officer should have the power to remove their name from the Electoral Register immediately." The chief electoral officer in Northern Ireland, unlike his counterpart in Britain, receives information from the registrar of births, deaths and marriages when people have died. He marks his register to show that they are dead, but he cannot remove the names from the register. In evidence to the Select Committee, he told us that he knew of five case in which the franchise had been exercised on behalf of someone who had died.
It would be a simple exercise in Northern Ireland, and in the rest of the United Kingdom, for people's names to be removed once they had died. To ensure that nothing had gone wrong, information could be sent to those households to check that the details were correct. That would prevent further intrusion into a family's grief being caused by the sending out of election addresses and polling cards to people who had died. That provision could be made for the whole of the United Kingdom. If electoral registers are to be correct, that Select Committee recommendation is important. We should try to ensure that no one is registered except those who are entitled to vote. We should stop these continuing errors.
We have done something about people who might not be entered on the register through the rolling register provision, but we have not yet acted to delete the names of those who should not be included. In Britain, information from the registrar of births, death and marriages is made available to the person--it might be the returning officer--within the local authority who deals with housing benefit or other provisions, such as council tax, which may have to be sent as a result of the death. However, the electoral register cannot be corrected at the same time.
The right hon. Gentleman spoke about multiple registrations. Although the Select Committee did not propose banning them, the White Paper attempts to ensure that they are monitored, checked and controlled and that action is taken on any abuse that is brought to light. Multiple registration is not normally necessary in Britain, but there is a particular problem in Northern Ireland.
Will the hon. Gentleman say from his experience of the Committee's investigations why that principle was changed in Northern Ireland? At one time, multiple registration was not allowed.
We may have discussed the history of the situation although I do not recollect what was said at that particular time, but, for our mutual benefit, I shall check our records to discover what occurred.
Multiple registration would be easy to control and contain in Britain. We have a rolling register; it may not roll fast enough for me, but supplementary lists are produced each month and people who move about the country can get on to those lists. If registration arrangements were speeded up, it would be possible for students, for example, to be taken quickly off one register and put on another, according to where they were living at a particular time. The problem in Northern Ireland is that that might be open to fraud. There is a three-month residency requirement for electoral registration in Northern Ireland so that people are not encouraged to move into an area just to be able to vote, thereby committing an electoral fraud. The residency qualification applies to by-elections as well as to general elections to prevent people taking up temporary residence and flooding an area in order to affect an election result.
If there were no residency requirement, problems would be presented in a general election; citizens of the Irish Republic might move into Northern Ireland on a temporary basis in order to vote. One way round the problem might be to retain the three-month residency requirement for citizens of the Republic of Ireland but not for citizens of the United Kingdom. I grant that difficulties might still remain, but I am looking for a way round these problems.
The Northern Ireland door-to-door electoral registration arrangements are excellent; they are a lesson to the rest of us. They have to be done in a way that avoids people getting hold of the forms fraudulently and filling them in with fictitious names, and so on. To overcome such problems, and to get the forms completed, canvassers will visit people at home and be face to face with them when they hand the forms over. That practice was probably widespread in Britain at one time, and I should like to see it extended beyond Northern Ireland. It is not only a matter of putting things in order and preventing fraud in Northern Ireland; it is sensible to ensure that as many people as possible who are entitled to be registered actually appear on the register. Something that developed in Northern Ireland because of different circumstances is, nevertheless, a good example for the rest of us.
Government responses to Select Committee reports are never ideal; they will never contain everything one might wish. However, the White Paper contains several valuable provisions that build on the recommendations in the Select Committee's report. It is a move down the road that the Committee wished to follow. Electoral investigation teams, the monitoring of multiple registrations and personal identifiers would all be helpful in ensuring that electoral registration is not subject to fraud, as it has been in the past.
The great shame is that legislation has not been introduced. We shall have to wait until after the coming election--the right hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster said 2001 or 2002--before legislation in on the cards again. I thought that we would move much more quickly.
The White Paper contains a provision for voluntary voter identity cards. The Government see that as a temporary measure; they may be expecting future developments that will lead to the introduction of better technology. The logic is that identity cards should have photographs on them. Driving licences with photographs and passports will be satisfactory for the purpose but, because not everyone is able to obtain a passport or vehicle driving licence, there should be some mechanism by which people can get identity cards. The White Paper mentions that the poor and the elderly might need to resort to such a facility.
The problem is that the poor and the elderly are probably less likely to exercise their rights than other groups. In contrast, others will readily have appropriate documents with a photograph, or will have no great difficulty in obtaining a photo ID card. There might be some resistance or lack of understanding about people's rights. If it is a temporary measure, I hope that we can quickly move on. A situation in which people who are lower on the social scales find it more difficult than others to get on electoral registers is unacceptable, both socially and politically. In the interests of democracy, as well as of our respective parties, we should not accept that. I have some difficulty arguing for my party's interests in Northern Ireland, because the Labour party has not yet come round to organising in Northern Ireland. Everyone should have the right to vote or not for the party that aspires to govern. By their nature, the Northern Ireland parties will always be small parties within the United Kingdom system. I hope that we move beyond a voluntary system and introduce a system that is fairly automatic and easy to use.
The key to everything going right is the development of the peace process. Those groups that are associated with paramilitaries must make a commitment to give up such activity, not as a tactic but to absorb themselves in the political process genuinely. The hope is that the operations of the Assembly and the Executive are such that people from paramilitary groups will be educated to take that approach. If they do so, it will be inconsistent for them to have any association with fraudulent activities. That is probably our greatest hope for putting things right.
However, there will still be problems in respect of the extension of some of the paramilitaries' activities. The Royal Ulster Constabulary has just produced a report showing that there are 78 gangs, 42 of which emerged from paramilitary activity, either current or historical, which are now the equivalent of what I call IRA plc. There might be an equivalent on the loyalist side. That residual problem from the past needs to be tackled and overcome, but it cannot be removed by good hopes. Tough measures must be taken to control the problem. Likewise, electoral malpractice may be reduced by the development of the peace process, but we cannot expect that it will just disappear. When we remove a cause, we do not necessarily remove its effect. Therefore, action needs to be taken in line with the White Paper and quickly.
I welcome the opportunity to participate in this debate on an extremely important and pertinent issue. First, I pay tribute to Mr. Brooke, who has chaired the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee so well. After listening to his speech this afternoon, anything that I say will be repetition, because he covered the many issues so adequately, emphasising the Government's long delay in acting on the issue.
The term "electoral malpractice" is eloquent and grand. We must not forget, however, that what we are discussing is nothing grander than blatant cheating and deceit, which attack the heart of our democratic process. The cancer of electoral fraud is especially damaging in Northern Ireland as we have been called to the polls so frequently over the past 30 years. Since 1972, there has, on average, been one poll a year in Northern Ireland. Given that statistic, we cannot underestimate the impact of organised electoral fraud on the political process in the Province. The impact is far-reaching. In the contests for many seats across Northern Ireland, one often finds a very close fight between two or three candidates in which only a small number of votes will separate the winner from the rest. As I come from such a constituency, I can understand the importance of fairness in the electoral system.
As has been acknowledged, at the previous Westminster election there was a high degree of fraudulent activity in the west of the Province, especially in Mid-Ulster. I certainly hope that such activity will not take place in the forthcoming election, because it could affect the overall result.
Local government elections are often held according to a system of proportional representation. Decisions on candidates winning or losing often come down to decimal points, so it is extremely important that we have a fair electoral system. The least that the people of Northern Ireland can expect is for the electoral process accurately to reflect their wishes. Parties across the United Kingdom are struggling to lift people out of their political apathy and reluctance to vote, so we must provide them with every incentive to do so.
As has been said, the most common forms of malpractice identified by the former chief electoral officer were multiple registration, personation, absent voter abuse and undue influence. It is entirely legal--and often beneficial for the honest voter--for someone to be registered to vote at more than one address. That is particularly true of students at colleges in Northern Ireland or on the mainland who wish to remain registered at home--when they might not in fact fulfil the registration qualifications. We need to discuss whether multiple registration is necessary. During the previous general election, there were examples of five or even six people registered as living in the same one-bedroomed flat in west Belfast. After closer investigation, it often emerged that none of the individuals concerned actually lived at the stated address. For every case of fraud that was discovered, it is reasonable to assume that many more were not. Fraud is not a random phenomenon but something much more organised and influential.
The register must be as accurate as possible. At the moment, it is based on the information in household forms; in many instances, the householder who fills in the form puts down everyone living in the house, even if they are not entitled to be on the register. The onus is then placed on political parties to argue that such people should not be included, but it is extremely difficult to sustain such an objection because one has to provide proof, and how can such anomalies be proved? The electoral officer generally accepts the household form as gospel truth. Without doubt, some people on the electoral register should not be on it, but political parties find it extremely difficult to have them removed. We welcome rolling registration, but we should also be able to remove from the register the names of not only those who have died but, through a system of rolling objections, those discovered during the year to have been incorrectly included. What is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. If we can add someone to the register, we should also be able to remove someone from it.
In the recent White Paper "Combating Electoral Fraud in Northern Ireland", the Government propose that those who are registered more than once should be more closely monitored so that their voting patterns can be traced and any irregularities pursued through the courts. However, that system of monitoring will regrettably not be implemented until 2002, thus being of no benefit at the coming elections. I hope that investigation procedures into irregularities will be much more thorough and efficient than in the past.
We would all welcome the additions--signature, date of birth and, I hope, the postcode--to the household form. The postcode is universally used nowadays to find out where people live. With the aid of a computer programme, a postcode provides an immediate address and it would make it easier for the electoral officer to trace a proxy vote application. I therefore suggest that the postcode be added.
I entirely concur with my hon. Friend. The electoral number that used to be on the electoral register will change when the election is called, though I do not understand why. A form of additional registration existed before, under which additional numbers appeared on the register. Now I gather that when the election is called, a button will be pressed and a new register with changed electoral numbers will appear. That will make it more difficult for political parties to put the electoral number on the application forms for proxy votes, and more difficult for the electoral officer to discover where the person on the register lives. In rural areas of Northern Ireland, many people have the same Christian names and are sometimes known by their nicknames. That makes it difficult for the electoral officer to choose the right person to give the vote to, which makes the postcode essential.
The hon. Gentleman has had to live with that problem in the House. Mistakes have been made here and they could be made on postal vote applications. National insurance numbers could also be used on the household form. Such numbers are distinctive and could be used to avoid mistakes of identification.
It is regrettable that legislation is unlikely to be implemented until 2002, and that the issue was not raised before the household registration forms appeared in 2000. If it had been, the additions could have been included for the coming election. There was considerable electoral abuse during the previous general election and it is likely that, because of the Government's inability to act quickly enough, there will be similar abuse in the coming election. I should have liked the next household form to include the additions rather than have to wait until 2002.
Vote stealing is a major issue in the procurement of postal or proxy votes. The number of people applying for absent votes in each constituency in Northern Ireland is approximately double that anywhere else in the United Kingdom. It provides massive potential for fraud. Often in the past individuals have been wholly unaware that an absent vote has even been applied for on their behalf. More rigorous scrutiny of the applications is essential if we are to restore a modicum of fairness to our democracy.
There is undoubtedly quite a lot of electoral malpractice in Northern Ireland, but the majority of it comes from false applications for postal and proxy votes. A smart card will be useful for people going to the polling station, but it will not be of much use for those applying for postal or proxy votes, especially in preventing those who are doing so fraudulently. If the household form were brought in as quickly as possible, it could be used in a more beneficial way to stop the fraud in postal and proxy votes.
I accept that the introduction of a smart card would benefit those who go to the polling stations, but if the presiding officer had a register that additionally contained dates of birth, that would also be a deterrent. If the presiding officer saw someone coming in, he could reasonably judge his age, and if he were in doubt he could question him. It would be unlikely that someone coming to vote fraudulently would know a date of birth. That would be beneficial too.
As the Bill to make the changes will apparently not be introduced all that soon, we could also make acceptable forms of identification other than passports or driving licences. I have known people who have gone to the polling station and produced a pass with a photograph that they used at work, but they were refused a vote because it was not a designated document. If someone produces a photograph that clearly identifies him, that should be acceptable too.
On the hon. Gentleman's earlier point about the date of birth, I just pass on the information that, in Malta, identity card numbers end with the date of birth and that number appears on the electoral register. There have been problems with identity cards in Northern Ireland, but they might nevertheless be a means by which one could try to ensure 100 per cent. electoral registration, because they would make it easier to trace people and place them on registers.
I am not as far travelled as the hon. Gentleman, but there is much to be said for the wisdom of the people of Malta. I cannot see why we cannot all have an identification card, as it would make things a lot easier in many ways. It is certainly worth looking into.
In conclusion, we are all disappointed that it has taken the Government so long to act. The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee report was printed in March 1998, we had a preliminary response from the Government in June 1998, followed by another in May 1999, and a recent White Paper. It is clear that the Government are not in any hurry, despite my understanding that we were to have legislation in this Session. I do not blame the Minister for that, because I believe that his intentions were good, but he was overruled in another place. I hope that the Government will examine the matter more urgently and take the promised steps, so that we can look forward to a fair electoral system in Northern Ireland, with abuse at a minimum.
I start with a confession to right a wrong of 18 years standing. I was in an election that I am certain was rigged. When I stood for the first year representative position in the economics department of Bristol university, I managed to accrue a first preference vote of 84 votes, while the second placed person came in with 26 votes. That was an impressive achievement, especially considering that there were only 76 people in the class. I can now tell the House, and thus the country, that the two culprits were Ian Williams and Clive Banks, who should never be allowed to stand for Parliament.
I welcome the opportunity to debate such a serious issue, albeit with an amusing side from time to time. I welcome the fact that it was also debated in the Northern Ireland Assembly on
I understand that the peace process has had to take priority and that ministerial and officer time is limited, but one might have expected a little more progress on the issue given that personation and electoral malpractice are probably responsible for increasing tension, especially when individuals in Northern Irish politics conclude that outcomes have been materially altered by personation. The point was also made that, in proportional representation elections, smaller influences lead to bigger changes, and I do not need to rehearse the reasons for that.
We all agree that electoral malpractice is deplorable. Democracy is based on the assumption that the will of the people, fairly expressed in the ballot box, influences outcomes. One need think only of the work of individuals such as Emily Pankhurst at the turn of the past century to see how fundamental that right has been, and it is wrong to deprive deliberately some individuals of that right by effectively discounting the value of their votes compared with the votes of those who seek to cheat the system. Let us remember that our democracy is founded on the basis of trust. Everyone is entitled to believe that others will respect the system and, when that does not happen, the entire system comes into question.
Although we are discussing Northern Ireland, we must recognise that there is probably an underlying level of malpractice elsewhere; one occasionally hears about cases of personation on the United Kingdom mainland. However, the incidence of such malpractice is much less pronounced outside Northern Ireland, and there seems to be a cultural rejection of the acceptability of widespread electoral malpractice.
The way that we operate and the way that the system in Northern Ireland has operated has been based on that assumption. However, as we have already heard, people in Northern Ireland have different views. A small number of individuals feel more able or perhaps more entitled to pervert our system of democracy.
The hon. Gentleman used the term "discounting votes". Is he aware that in the implementation of the law on identification, many genuine voters have been turned away and their votes discounted, even though presiding officers knew who they were and knew that they were genuine? As a result of that, we have been pressing for records of those who have been turned away. The electoral officers have not been prepared to give them to us, but it is an aspect of the process that is adding to concern about voting.
I presume that the hon. Gentleman is thinking of occasions when people with the right to vote turn up at the polling station only to find that a vote has already been cast in their name. I have come across such cases. Of course, they do not know who has cast the vote. They do not expect the staff at the polling station to recall the person, and the incident is not followed up or taken through the courts.
Recourse should have been made to tendered ballots in those cases, but I gather that, on certain occasions, people have not been told that they could vote using a tendered ballot. I am thinking of cases such as the one in which a wife came to the polling station with her husband, brought the wrong handbag and left her driving licence at home. Although the presiding officer knew who she was and her husband identified her as well, she was refused her vote. That is a greater discount, when the state turns people away and prevents them from legitimately voting.
The hon. Gentleman raises a comparable injustice to the one that I described. It must be galling for such individuals to be turned away, especially when they know that a proportion of the votes being cast in their neighbourhood may not have been cast legitimately. The hon. Gentleman made that point most effectively.
Sometimes we have campaigns to increase electoral turnout, and, somewhat whimsically, I would like to point out that it is ironic that we are now trying to stop people from voting too much. The correct allocation of votes is one per person. I do not think that is in dispute.
There are also plenty of examples, many of which have already been mentioned, of the ways in which the system is cheated. One of Mr. Thompson has described, is when five or six people are registered in one house or in a one-bedroomed bedsit. I understand that, due to student poverty, that might be the true number of residents of such a bedsit in the environs of Queen's university, Belfast--I will not make a point about tuition fees, because I would be ruled out of order. Nevertheless, when a pattern emerges in certain areas, one has to be suspicious.
It is difficult to prove that sort of abuse. Considerable resources are required--more than is available in Northern Ireland for the task--to follow up all such examples. Ultimately, it can come down to individual members of the public reporting such incidents, but in doing so they lay themselves open to intimidation, given that those who cheat the system are hardly prone to take a fair-minded attitude to being found out. Many other examples could be adduced, but I think that we all agree that we have a serious and particular problem in Northern Ireland that is not shared by the rest of the United Kingdom.
Various proposals have been made. I favour the collecting of personal identifiers such as date of birth and signature, using the registration process. That information can then be used to verify voters' identity. Again, other Members have defined that proposal in detail. However, even with that, the presiding officer would still need discretionary powers to refuse ballot papers. In theory, I could turn up to vote with my grandfather's pension book and say that my date of birth was 1916. The presiding officer should be able to refuse me a ballot paper in those circumstances, as I am not 85, although the past four years in Parliament have definitely put years on me. It would be relatively easy for me to get away with electoral fraud if the difference in date of birth were smaller. My brother, for example, is only a few years younger than me and is also called Öpik. If he were on the electoral register, I could get away with it easily on the assumption that the electoral staff did not know of me. We need to recognise that the measure would not be a panacea for the problems.
A photographic identity document would be a step forward, but it would take time to legislate for such a scheme. I welcome the suggestion that such a card should be free. To charge people for being enfranchised would be unacceptable. The elderly, poor, infirm and others may be disinclined to apply for such a card. If so, we would be concerned about disfranchising people through additional bureaucracy. Will the Minister comment on that?
Perhaps the most radical proposal is to replace all the specified documents with an electoral identity card, although it has been suggested that that might take 10 years or so. I see the Minister shake his head, so I am optimistic that the Government think that the card could be introduced rather faster. I look forward to hearing what he says about the timetable for such a change.
In the specific circumstances, it may make sense to introduce such an identity card scheme. I doubt that it would completely eliminate fraud, but it would probably massively reduce it. It would be a good idea for elections, but I have always had reservations about identity cards on a more widespread basis for citizens in the United Kingdom. I am not a number; I am a free man--well, I sometimes think that I am probably simply a mobile number to the press, but I shall live with that. Nevertheless, the issue should not be used as an opportunity to introduce an identity card on a UK-wide basis. It should simply stand to try to eliminate electoral fraud in Northern Ireland. The other debate should be had separately, on the Floor of the House. Creeping legislation has always concerned me, and I see the possibility of it in this instance.
The system is most open to abuse at present through postal and proxy votes. In evidence to the Select Committee, the former chief electoral officer, Mr. Bradley, said that two thirds of the applications for postal votes that he saw were marked red to show that they were discounted and disqualified. That proportion demonstrates the magnitude of the abuse of the postal vote system. The proposals to introduce checks for postal and proxy votes similar to those required for normal registration, combined with a unique serial number or barcode on each application form, would be useful. I am sure that the fraction of two thirds is right. Can the Minister confirm it? When I was told of it, I was immediately suspicious as it was so astoundingly high. He may not be able to answer now.
As we know from experiments last year on how people vote, postal ballots seem to increase turnout. They had a 60 per cent. positive effect in one of the local government experiments last year. So long as the votes have been cast legitimately, that is great, but we would have to ensure that the increase in turnout was not at the cost of electoral integrity. That is an aside, but the issue of postal ballots must be handled in conjunction with the other considerations.
Despite all the changes, we must recognise that malpractice is tempting to some and achievable by a few. I do not favour compulsory voting, as I think that politicians should positively motivate individuals to vote and earn individuals' votes. Even if it were introduced, it would probably be abused in some way. I shall give an example that illustrates the humility of the Liberal Democrats. In 1992, an individual called Sluggo Copeland voted in the elections for a federal president of the Liberal Democrats. To the returning officer's surprised, it turned out about six months later that Sluggo was a dog that lived in the United States. To the dog's redemption, its ballot paper arrived after the close of nominations, so it did not significantly influence the outcome. Most intriguingly, neither the Liberal Democrats nor any other party specifies the category of species entitled to membership, so that vote was technically in order--although the handwriting was somewhat illegible. If the Liberal Democrats can have that sort of potential problem, we shall always have people trying to cheat the system. On balance, however, most people, including those in Northern Ireland, take their electoral responsibilities seriously, and do not seek to pervert the course of democracy.
I do not think that I heard the hon. Gentleman correctly. I thought that he said that his party's constitution includes a species definition on who can be a member and who can vote. Would I be right in assuming that, in order to be a member of that party, one has to be a human being? That has not always been my experience.
Had I been tempted, Mr. Olner, I would have used the phrase often heard in "Just a Minute" and said, "I shall give the hon. Gentleman a point for his entertaining intervention, but he does not get the Floor." If I were a Minister, or even a member of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, I should say that I would look into the matter and write to the hon. Gentleman.
We cannot realistically expect to eliminate electoral fraud 100 per cent. It would probably be unfeasibly expensive to try. We certainly are not doing so in the rest of the United Kingdom. We are trying to bring the degree of malpractice in Northern Ireland to a level comparable to that in the rest of the UK. Of course we want a zero rate, but we live in the real world--an imperfect world, with political opportunism, in which some people have different values. I urge the Government to take the necessary steps to require some form of photographic identification to be produced at polling stations to at least start to combat the problem.
In a democracy, it is our responsibility to protect the interests of law-abiding citizens, who will always form the majority. We must make it absolutely clear that society will come down hard and positively on those who seek to upset that valid, honourable and proud electoral system.
As a general principle, I should like the law in Northern Ireland to be the same as it is in mainland Britain. However, I can see that, in this matter, Northern Ireland may have to be treated differently. I shall not press the Minister to answer my questions today.
When I intervened on Mr. Brooke, I wrongly asked why it had taken so long to have this debate. I should have asked why it has taken the Government so long to act on the findings of the Select Committee's report. A collateral question is: when do the Government propose introducing legislation to combat electoral fraud; and collateral to that, in the light of the Select Committee's recommendations, should the Royal Ulster Constabulary's general powers to prevent obstructive and intimidating behaviour be increased?
That having been said, I refer in passing to Mr. Barnes. I have listened to him many times, and he rightly claims to be an expert on Northern Ireland and on electoral registration; and when those two subjects converge it is a rich cocktail in which he can claim to be a specialist.
Mr. Thompson kindly took an intervention from me on the subject of people who have the same name. Of course, it is a well-known fact that, in our honMr. Taylor has the same name as mine. It will not surprise anyone to know that, from time to time, post that arrives for us at the House is muddled up. He once said to me that when I received cheques intended for him I put them in my bank account, and when I received death threats meant for him, I sent them on by second-class post.
Clearly, as a student, Mr. Öpik achieved a prodigious over-performance in the electoral college of his class. It is not a proper matter to discuss here, but I should like, in the margins of the meeting, or on some social occasion, to learn more about that. Whatever went wrong, he was clearly on top of it.
With your indulgence, Mr. Olner, I conclude on a different note, with a matter that is merely tangential to the proceedings. The hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire paid tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster in his roles as Chairman of the Select Committee and, previously, as Secretary of State. For me, he is not merely my right hon. Friend but my personal friend, and this may be the last time that he and I take part in a parliamentary debate together. His thoroughness, scholarship and wit are legend, and his parliamentary career and achievements are awesome, not just because of the high responsibilities that he has undertaken, with distinction, but also because of his infinitely careful attention to the small things. I admire what he has done more than he may know. To anyone seeking to embark on a parliamentary career I hold him up as an example of how it should be done.
I am grateful for the opportunity afforded by the debate to discuss electoral abuse in Northern Ireland, and for the many informed contributions, and I acknowledge the expertise and commitment of the Select Committee and its distinguished Chairman, Mr. Brooke.
I should like to add to the sentiments just expressed by Mr. Taylor. I know from my own involvement in Northern Ireland that the right hon. Gentleman is well regarded and held in great affection in the Province. Parliamentary convention dictates that I should not refer to him as my right hon. Friend, but as he knows, I have for several years now been his constituent, at least for several days a week, and I have been very well served. I resorted to his services only once, and that was for a letter confirming my existence in the block of flats where I live, so that I could gain a residents' car park permit, and I am grateful to him for that. He has played a distinguished role, not only in the House, but in his dealings in Northern Ireland, to which he brought great expertise, warmth and affection.
I shall try to cover as many of the points raised in the debate as I can, in the time available. There is no shortage of time, but I do not want to test the patience of the House too far. I shall not be drawn into commenting on who may or may not vote in elections for any Liberal Democrat party office, but, in the spirit of confession of Mr. Öpik, I confess that, in one election for which I was standing--not for Parliament, but for my local authority--an elderly gentleman came up to me outside the polling station and said, "Mr. Howarth, I have just voted for you, and you will be pleased to know that my dog did too." When I questioned him further about that to ascertain the possibility of it happening legally, he produced a polling card with the name Jack Russell on it. I am not sure whether the dog or another member of the man's family was called Jack Russell, but I am happy to report that the size of my majority in that election exceeded one, so I was not elected fraudulently.
I confirm that the Government take the issue of electoral fraud very seriously indeed. Although, as the right hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster acknowledged, it is difficult to quantify the amount of abuse that occurs in Northern Ireland, the perception of abuse is a threat to the democratic process, a point which the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire made extremely well. I share the disappointment of the House that legislation to counter abuse is not already in place, and I say that especially in view of the fact that elections are expected during the year, if not sooner.
As we have repeatedly made clear, and as Mr. Barnes said, any measures that we take must strike a balance between limiting opportunities for abuse of the electoral system and not putting unnecessary obstacles in the way of legitimate voters. That sounds like a simple balance to strike, but from the extensive consultations in which I have been involved, I can tell hon. Members that it is not as easy as it sounds.
The measures outlined in the White Paper, which has been referred to extensively in the debate, are largely based on the excellent work done by the Select Committee when it investigated electoral malpractice. The conclusions of the report of the Northern Ireland Office, published at about the same time, have also been taken into account in formulating the proposals in the White Paper. Some, including the right hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster and the hon. Member for Solihull, have pressed for an explanation for our not having already included the proposals in legislation. That is not because of any lack of commitment to the problem, because the matter is of grave concern, something on which I have received many representations, and an issue that I take seriously. The truth of the matter is that the measures in the White Paper have been refined and developed after detailed consultations with all political parties, with the chief electoral officer, and with registration and electoral officers in Great Britain, as well as after an examination of all the measures that have been introduced in other parts of the world to combat electoral fraud.
Whatever measures we introduce must be broadly acceptable to the House and, as important if not more so, they must be broadly acceptable to the electorate. Because the measures that we want to introduce will affect how people register to vote and how we introduce new attainers, we will have to bring forward primary legislation, as the right hon. Gentleman said. However, much of the proposed change will involve new technical equipment that is not in place. If we were to introduce legislation now, its procedures simply could not be implemented straight away. I shall say more about that in a moment.
The right hon. Gentleman mentioned that other measures that do not require legislative provision have already been brought forward by the chief electoral officer. For instance, he has initiated a programme of enhanced training for those who administer elections, and he will issue new guidelines for those who work at polling stations on polling day. Given what has been said during the debate about how abuse is often conducted, the Chamber will realise that those two initiatives are welcome and important. The chief electoral officer has also decided that absent vote applications should be processed locally in future to facilitate their scrutiny. There has been on-going liaison between the chief electoral officer and the police, but the Chamber will understand that it would be inappropriate for me to give further details about that now.
We have also commissioned research that will provide valuable information about the extent of vote stealing and perhaps shed more light on the manner in which it happens. I should issue a warning. Those who may be contemplating such abuse should be aware that, if a pattern emerges, it is open to the police to investigate. I need say no more than that. The research is not aimed specifically at that purpose, but if a pattern were to emerge in any constituency, the police could well carry out a more detailed investigation.
I do not propose to get involved in advising the Director of Public Prosecutions in this debate. The hon. Gentleman may realise that it would be most inappropriate--perhaps even counterproductive--for me to do so. However, we and the police are concerned about the quality of evidence that can be produced to demonstrate that fraud has been carried out, which will determine whether the Director of Public Prosecutions feels that a case can be brought.
As I pointed out, measures have been put in place by the chief electoral officer. I cannot give the Chamber a commitment that a Bill will be introduced soon--I should probably stick to the formulation "shortly"--because we cannot anticipate how long this Session will last; nor, as is the convention on such matters, can I say what may be in the next Queen's Speech. However, I can give the assurance that if the opportunity to legislate arises, we will bring forward proposals. Most of the White Paper's provisions have a considerable lead-in time; there are no quick solutions for countering electoral abuse.
First, the voter identity card that will be included in the list of documents to be used at polling stations will certainly be issued as quickly as is practicable. However, the House will understand that, when developing such a database and issuing cards of that nature, it is important that both the information technology and the organisation are of the required standard.
I can understand why dates cannot be given, but I urge the Minister and the Government to move quickly after the next election. We have been dragging our feet for so long. We do not know whether we will have a full term until the votes are cast, but we know that in Northern Ireland there will be an Assembly election in a couple of years. We are equally aware that there will be a European election. We should not think of a general election in five years' time. We want this dealt with sooner.
I shall come on to that point in a moment. To return to the question of the voluntary voter identity card, for such a system to be developed in a way that was faulty, inaccurate or open to abuse would only further undermine faith in the electoral system in Northern Ireland and waste public money.
As I mentioned earlier, and the hon. Member for Solihull spoke about this too, many of the changes proposed in our White Paper will depend on information being collected during the autumn canvas. That again requires new information technology and software in the electoral office to ensure that, when that information is collected, it can be used in the appropriate way and, as with the voter ID card, is an accurate basis on which to take forward further counter-abuse measures. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the views and thoughts of the RUC about whether it has sufficient powers. We have consulted the RUC and it believes that it has sufficient powers. It is working closely with the chief electoral officer to ensure that its powers go in the right direction. It would be inappropriate for me to go much further than that. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that there has been a useful and productive dialogue between our officials, the chief electoral officer and those representing the Chief Constable.
It is hoped, and this goes directly to Rev. Martin Smyth, that the legislative measures, particularly those that we put forward in the White Paper, will be in place for the Assembly election scheduled for May 2003. I personally hope that we will be able to achieve that. Had all the practical difficulties been overcome, I should have liked to have done something more before the next general election, but it simply was not practicable. It was not because we were dragging our feet.
In a radio interview shortly after the publication of the White Paper, one of the elected politicians in Northern Ireland, who is not here today and so I shall not name him, accused me of dragging my feet on this, and I was struck by that phrase. I looked back at our office note of a meeting that I had had with him as recently as November, and that confirmed my memory that, at the time, he had urged me not to rush into anything until we were certain that all the technology and correct procedures were in place--a legitimate argument to ensure that we did not disfranchise legitimate voters. That was in November, so it was upsetting to be accused in March by the same hon. Gentleman of dragging my feet. I shall not labour the point, but I have been waiting for an opportunity to get that off my chest.
Will the Minister accept that members of Select Committees--I do not know about the rest of mankind--would prefer the Government to make conservative estimates of when they are likely to deliver rather than to suggest that developments will occur faster than they do in the event?
With his customary wisdom and good sense, the right hon. Gentleman makes a point with which I could not disagree. That is certainly the intention behind our announcements.
I shall now deal with the some of the issues that I have not yet addressed. The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire mentioned Pat Bradley, the former chief electoral officer, and asked about postal vote applications. As the hon. Gentleman anticipated, I do not have that information to hand and, despite frantic efforts, I still do not know. When I receive the information, I shall certainly respond to the hon. Gentleman.
I did not expect to receive the information right now and I thank the Minister for undertaking to find out. We have one eye focused on specific malpractices in Northern Ireland, and what goes on there could have implications for the rest of the United Kingdom that are wider than we realise. I hope that we can use the information about Northern Ireland to check that malpractice is not going on unnoticed elsewhere.
That may have wider consequences, but let us gain the information first and then see what conclusions can be drawn from it.
The hon. Gentleman also asked about Northern Ireland voters taking specified identity documents to the poll. As Northern Ireland Members will know, the necessary documents are widely advertised during elections and, if an election were to take place in the near future, are likely to be so again. Unfortunately, as the hon. Member for Belfast, South said, some people will always turn up without the documents and will be unable to vote unless they can find them and return with them.
The hon. Member for Solihull was right to say that, ideally, what happens in Northern Ireland should be exactly the same as in the rest of the UK, but if special arrangements are necessary, they will sometimes be inconvenient. Unfortunately, that is an inescapable consequence. We must make every effort to remind people in Northern Ireland that specified documents are necessary, but it may pass some people by.
Mr. Thompson referred to the potential usefulness of the postcode. I suspect that it is already used, but I may be wrong. Rather than give a direct answer now, I shall check up and advise the hon. Gentleman later.
That is an interesting point, which I shall check. The hon. Gentleman also mentioned re-numbering on the register as a result of rolling registration. The Representation of the People Act 2000 means that there will be re-numbering to indicate where a new resident has moved in, but most of those on the register will have the same number as in previous elections. Those who have moved will be affected, but not, we hope, those who were in the same place for previous elections. Although there will be that difference, it will not be as difficult as the hon. Gentleman expected.
My hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire and the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire mentioned voter identity cards. We will need to make it easy for people to take up that option when it is introduced, because it will be a voluntary card. I take the view--if another Minister is responsible at the time, I am certain that he or she will take the same view--that we will have to make enormous efforts to ensure that obtaining a voter identity card is as easy as possible, even to the extent of having mobile units go round the streets so that people can step outside their door and make the necessary arrangements. It is enormously important to introduce a voluntary voter identification card and dispense with non-photographic specified documents. There will be many people who have no wish to travel abroad and therefore do not have a passport and who do not drive or anticipate driving a motor car and therefore do not have a photo-identity driver's licence. The only document left for them to have will be a voluntary photo-identity card. In those circumstances, it is incumbent on us to ensure that they are as available as possible to legitimate voters. My hon. Friend and the hon. Gentleman made a good point well, and I take it seriously.
My hon. Friend also made a number of points arising directly from the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee's recommendations. With your tolerance, Mr. Olner, I shall deal with those points in something like the order in which they were raised. He said that a recommendation was that, following the notification of a person's death by the registrar of births, deaths and marriages, the chief electoral officer should have the power to remove that person's name from the electoral register immediately. That has been done in Northern Ireland on an informal basis for a number of years, following arrangements made by the chief electoral officer. The Representation of the People Act will place a statutory requirement on registrars to supply that information, which will make easier what my hon. Friend wants to happen.
My hon. Friend also referred to the recommendation on cross-checking with the information from planning services and local authorities as a way of providing information on occupancy, the number of dwellings or even whether a property is derelict. As he made clear, there is an annual canvas in Northern Ireland, whereby, as far as possible, a canvasser visits every household to collect information on those in any dwelling who might be on the electoral register.
Rolling registration, which was introduced in February 2001, will increase the register's accuracy by allowing those who move home to re-register quickly. It empowers the chief electoral officer to collect information from the land valuation registry, the rates agency, the registry of births, deaths and marriages, and local authorities. That list could be lengthened by order, if that proved necessary.
My hon. Friend mentioned another recommendation from the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, which says that
"evidence indicates that there may be a serious level of multiple registration, at least in some parts of Northern Ireland." Many hon. Members have referred to that. Multiple registration is not a crime. Those with holiday homes or on full-time study courses, as has been mentioned, may have the right to be registered in two places. Indeed, I suspect that several hon. Members exercise that right; I have already confessed to doing so myself, not that I have any desire to vote in the Westminster constituency merely to have a residents' car park pass. That is another matter.
I also admitted in the House not to using that right, and there is a question of whether it is legitimate that I should not appear on registers. The law can be interpreted in two ways, because we generally adhere to the principle that people should take up only one registration in their sole or main place of residence, to refer to the poll tax. Therefore, I have not made use of that right, but there is some dispute as to wheMr. Öpik admitted to adopting the same position.
I should be resuming my place soon, because the debate is bringing forward far too many confessions for the comfort of the House. I leave that concern with my hon. Friend.
Of course, it is a criminal offence to vote more than once in an election, which is the issue with which we are concerned.
May I interpolate a parenthesis to what the Minister has just said, and say that it is criminal except in two by-elections that occur on the same day and in which the individual has the right to vote?
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for drawing that to my attention. I should have been aware of that, but we are all the wiser yet again for his intervention.
For argument's sake, if I were registered in Westminster and in Knowsley and there were local government elections on the same day, I could choose to vote in Westminster or Knowsley, but not in both. The same would apply in a parliamentary election. For obvious reasons, I will vote in Knowsley when the general election comes, although, because of the actions of the Boundary Commission for England, it will not be for myself. However, I take the hon. Gentleman's point. I thank him for the opportunity to amplify my point.
I hope that I have made it clear how much we appreciate the excellent work of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee and value its continuing interest in pressing the issue. I hope that we have made clear our commitment to finding proposals that will work, while not imposing unreasonable burdens on people legitimately seeking to exercise their democratic right. The overwhelming majority in Northern Ireland want to vote and they do not want to abuse that position; just as importantly, they do not want anyone else to abuse that position for them. The messages from this debate are, "Yes, we need to act," and, "Yes, this House deplores the stealing of votes." If those who are contemplating stealing votes get that message, it will be to the greater good--
I appreciate the hon. Gentleman's giving way, as I missed the earlier part of the debate.
As a former teacher, I remember our 16-year-olds being presented with a national insurance number in their last week at school. Surely, that is when we should introduce proper identification for all school leavers. That, in itself, may encourage them to take more interest in the democratic system.
There is an argument for using the national insurance number as a unique identifier, but there are data protection and other difficulties with the suggestion. The national insurance number is issued for one purpose; to use it for another purpose as a statutory requirement would be in breach of the data protection principles in legislation. We could argue about that, but legal advice on the matter would suggest difficulties. I understand the attraction of the proposal but I am advised that it would not be legally possible.
If the message from the Committee is that we are opposed to people's votes being stolen and will take appropriate action to stop it, the debate has been worth while.
Question put and agreed to.
Adjourned accordingly at twenty-seven minutes past Four o'clock.